The Mystery of Words/Part 2/Chapter 1

The Mystery of Words  (1924)  by Ralcy Husted Bell
Part II, Chapter I

I

Meanings and Moral Values

If Part I has other than academic value, it should lead to a practical consideration of the meaning of words. Indeed it is only through an appreciation of their significations that any study of words is of value. The practical application then of Semantics or the Science of Significations is of prime importance.

Part I has treated casually of the complexity of laws that govern words; of the different aspects of the many elements of linguistics; of characteristics and relationships perceived from various points-of-view; of the life of language and of the tendencies of the parts of speech, etc., which, of course, are understood to mean the trend of intellectual activities wherein are found the life of language and the tendencies of words.

The purpose of Part II is to regard words, things of daily use, in their simpler aspects. Some of the deeper questions must be touched. Delicate nuances, subtleties of meaning, can not be ignored; and ethical questions must arise. But on the whole, unclouded meanings, unified by liberal consent and best usage, will be sought to the end that good form may be conserved, and that the tendency toward looseness of expression and demoralization of language may be opposed by persons inclined to be careful and considerate of their speech.

It may be well to think of words, for the moment, as the immaterial shadows of things physical, the echoes of things spiritual. As shadows and echoes, they are associated with the images that people the conscious world. Also they are more than shadows and echoes, for in a sense, as residents of the mental world, they are both angels of light and demons of darkness, having power to bless or curse. They may hold our souls in thrall or make us free through the liberation of our thoughts. If we regard them merely as symbols, they seem endowed with sentience; but since we know they are not, we can not shift the moral responsibility of decent usage from our own shoulders to their wings. We must deal with them as with any other phenomenon. If we handle them wisely, they will serve us well; if we use them ignorantly or viciously, it is only through chance that they do not harm us.

The intellect, with all its achievements, never has been able to estimate the value of a word nor to compute its power for harm. Only the Ideal Soul is wise enough and good enough to gauge the worth of a kindly word spoken at the right time, or to take account of the evil and the misfortune of a cruel word uttered at the wrong time. Common experience tells us that the stress of anguish may be broken by a word; and that a word may open the very gates of hell. No phenomenon is greater than this.

Consider for a moment. What makes a shrew a shrew? Her words. In them you feel her vexatious temperament, the violence of her nature, and in them you may taste the vinegar of her disposition. What makes Debs the most loved of living men? You will say, Because he is the most loving. That is only part of it. His suffering for his ideals, his righteous consistency, his inflexible spirit, his unbowed head, his forgiving heart, and his great love for his kind—all these, in themselves, are mute. Numberless men and women possess these same characteristics. If such traits were not widely in the hearts of human beings, Eugene V. Debs, would be a lonely bird over an abyss—impotent as a wail in a desert world. The aptness of his words—that is his genius, his eloquence, and his glory. In his apt words you feel the gentleness, the sincerity of his soul. Through them you catch glimpses of his vision. They are the medium through which his superb character is revealed. They are the dynamics of his great influence. They give you confidence in his acts and faith in his love. For the real meaning of a word is not in the dictionary but in the human consciousness. And that is the reason why bad breath and worse teeth, offensive as they are, are attractive when compared with many words that men and women daily use. Better than “good birth” is attractive speech. We may excuse faulty attire, forgive the social slips of those who have forgotten from their little book on etiquette—in a word, we can overlook almost all shortcomings and errors of conduct save those only of speech. There is something in a man’s words that marks him with the mark of Cain or puts the halo around his brow. Yet, what a curious thing is language? Words are the least part of it. Their aptness, inflections, tones, pronunciations, stresses, and combinations—their parallelisms and contrasts—all these are immeasurably greater than the mere words themselves.

Some words seem immortal, as if possessed of spirit that persists through change of form in life and through all the mutations of death. At times, words shape our attitude toward life; they are responsible for our acts; and they govern our thoughts. Wantonly they have scarred and maimed millions of hearts. They have sowed the seeds of bitterness in childhood—seeds that grow into evil plants. They have filled prisons with felons, asylums with pathetic wrecks, and homes with needless pain. They have robbed the soul of courage, and they have thronged it with the phantoms of fear. They have driven light and love from the brain, and they have put the serpents of hatred and the beasts of prey within the dark cavern of the skull. They have wrapped the earth in a mantle of misery.

The volume of meanness encompassed by a word uttered, or by one withheld, is astonishing; and the amount of goodness and joy released by the simplest of words, is equally amazing. The weak have been made strong and the ill have been healed by a word. Barren ways are changed in a trice to flowery walks by loving words: poverty is turned into riches and wretchedness into gladness. This should give pause to hasty speech.

I can understand in a way how a man can be miserly with money. To him gold represents years of struggle for what he believes to be success. It assures him certain comforts and a kind of pleasure in the things that gold will buy. Going a step higher, it makes it possible for him to help others. It gives him power over misery—a power to suppress want—a power to kindle happiness—a power to protect the weak from the might of wrong—the only power that is prized by any worthy soul; but I can not understand the man who is grudging of generous words or one who is indifferent to the decent parts of speech.

I can understand how the madness of anger may sling a word as a dart to wound a foe or even to hurt a friend; and how vanity may sputter smarting words, scintillating in an artificial light, for the childish pleasure of being reputed witty. Anyone can understand this, because all have been at times both angry and vain, and occasionally too blind to see that the wit that wounds is not wit; and that the humor which humiliates another is not extraordinarily humorous. These things are clear enough; but that which is not clear is the state of heart capable of uttering deliberately a cruel word, or that condition of mind morbid enough to withhold a kind word. Nothing could be meaner except the adding of lies to the cruelty.

Kind words should not be uttered merely as a duty, but rather as an evidence of character and as a proof of rational attitude. They should not be given in the spirit of charity, for in kindness there is but one caste, and, therefore, no condescension.

So much for a little aside on the ethical significance of words. Ethics is the secret of their alchemy. The alchemist is the will of man.

Yet talk of this kind does very little good I think to speech as it is spoken, to language as it is written, or to morals. The real morals of a man can not be changed by a sermon. The folk of this world are less careful of the garb of their souls than of the clothes of their bodies. In my enthusiastic youth I had faith in protest against absurdity and evil. I believed that man, above all else, was a rational being. At maturity my faith falters as I perceive that man is not so much a rational as he is an emotional being.