the folly of language

There’s much fun to be had at the expense of the English language — that is to say, at the expense of the version of English spoken here in the States:

  • We park in driveways and drive on parkways.
  • One often pays a toll on freeways.
  • Night falls but day breaks.
  • Suits are packed in a garment bag and garments are packed in a suitcase.

In searching around the web a bit, I also came across several pages* devoted to the sheer silliness of English:

  • We must polish the Polish furniture.
  • He could lead if he would get the lead out.
  • The farm was used to produce produce.
  • The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.
  • The soldier decided to desert in the desert.
  • This was a good time to present the present.
  • A bass was painted on the head of the bass drum.

And so it goes, this folly of logic throughout the English language. Of course, some linguists may be able to provide etymological history for why certain conventions for how we say what we say to mean what we mean came about. Saying and meaning, however, are two different things.

Once again, Twain provides sound wisdom on the matter: “The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is … the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

So I have been ruminating, while sitting amidst the remaining boxes of items prepared to be transported from one location to another, whether the apt phrase to use as this particular spell-of-time called sabbatical nears its conclusion is “going back.” Does one ever really go back, which is not the same as the more achievable act of going backward — i.e., on a bicycle, as a running technique to strengthen the forgotten leg muscles, in knitting (or so I’m told, because knit one, pearl two was too much for me to grasp).

“Going back,” however, attempts to evoke the sentiment of returning to something or somewhere stable. We go back home from vacation or go back to our offices having forgotten a book or keys — going back is as reassuring as it is unnerving. The latter is the reason that many choose not to attend their high school reunions for fear that going back to the physical structure of the educational institution may catalyze once again the social arrangements that existed ten, fifteen, twenty years ago. (Time travel is less daunting in some respects.) Going back can feel worse than anti-climactic; it takes on the veneer of the gruesome. Going back can feel as if nothing has changed. And yet, if nothing is unchanging, can we really go back?

The folly of language is also its beauty. Our inability to communicate in a manner that replicates our very thoughts for others is what gives rise to heart-stopping prose and enchanting descriptions — Sebald elucidating the poetry to be found in the way smoke billows or the anthropomorphic qualities of black silk as in this passage from Rings of Saturn where he is describing the actions of a dying man:

Apollo had burnt all of his own manuscripts in the fireplace. At times, when he did so, a weightless flake of soot ash like a scrap of black silk would drift through the room, borne up on the air, before sinking to the floor somewhere or dissolving into the dark.

Each time I read about Apollo Korzeniowski My mind’s eye follows the soot around the room, instinctively raising my chin as if I expect the ash to be twisting and floating near me, wherever I happen to be while reading those words. (One of those times happened to be while seated on a large slab of granite at the Met Museum in New York City along east wall of a room that contained the Temple of Dendur, the centerpiece of the Egyptian collection at the museum. The entire northern wall of the room leans inward and is made of several hundred small panes of glass giving visitors a feeling of closeness with the adjacent Central Park — closeness and airiness, inside and outside, embraced and alighted.) Does it matter whether the ash was silk-like or not? Is this a debate of historical accuracy? Can adjectives alone make or break history?

“Going back” viewed as an incarnation of returning may be cognizant of change; that is to say, if the traveler has changed — by the mere passing of time, through encounters and glimpses into other ways of being and living — so, too, has her home — even if only having gathered dust that was previously absent.

Yet, both “going back” and “returning” feel heavy, laden with the past rather than buoyed by the wisdom of history.

When words in our language fail us or, worse, stifle us, we turn to other tongues.

I recently learned that the sanskrit word “bhu” is used to mean both “being” and “becoming” —

How can that be? For so long I have pitted the two against the other: being as alternatively stagnant and resolute; becoming as responsive and generative. But both, and? How does one orient oneself to accept this as not merely duality or compounded noun, but what is? If so, can one be going back and returning?

In Korean, the word “han” connotes both despair and acceptance, sorrow as well as a desire for vengeance though without action; the definitions rendered in English are inherently inadequate, so devoid are our words of the implied cultural meanings and referents to which “han” signals almost before its utterance.

In a contrasting vein, the Greek word “kalon” — the Platonic descriptor of beauty — struggles to gain apt expression in English. Rather than attempt to paraphrase, I will quote directly from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

More typically kalon appears in contexts to which “beautiful” would fit awkwardly or not at all. For both Plato and Aristotle—and in many respects for Greek popular morality—kalon has a particular role to play as ethical approbation, not by meaning the same thing that agathon “good” means, but as a special complement to goodness.

Because kalon does not always apply when “beautiful” does, and conversely much can be kalon that no one calls beautiful, translators may use other words. One rightly popular choice is “fine,” which applies to most things labeled kalon and also appropriate to ethical and aesthetic contexts (so Woodruff 1983). There are fine suits and string quartets but also fine displays of courage. Of course we have fine sunsets and fine dining as well, this word being even broader than kalon; that is not to mention fine points or fine print. And whereas people ordinarily ask what beauty really consist in, so that a conversation on the topic might actually have taken place, it is hard to imagine worrying over “what the fine is” or “what is really fine.”

Translation, too, is far from an exact science — for that matter, science is far from being an exact science! All language, however precise, is mere approximation.


Well this is a fine rhetorical corner I’ve painted myself into, out of which the only way out is to embrace the reality that going to campus, to my office, and into the coming autumn semester with a sense of both being and becoming and to trust that things that seem unchanging have also undergone change, however glacial.

In doing so, I’ll ponder another unlikely discursive combination: rooted wanderlust…

The folly of language is also its beauty.

* If you click on this page, you’ll notice that the word “homonym” is used to mean heteronym.

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