Love. Security. Anger. Comfort. Pain.
I bet each of you could give a basic, reasonable and perfectly correct definition of each of these words if I asked you, and I am sure that you also use them constantly in your daily vernacular without so much as a thought. You know what you mean to convey when you use them and their meaning to you personally needs no clarification.
However, I wonder if you ever considered the plight of the words themselves and the larger context of this thing we call "language." It goes without saying that we constantly use words without thinking and therefore often use them wrongly, but it is rare that we stop to ponder this and even more abnormal that we reach into the depths of language’s complexity to ask, “what exactly is communication?” It is a strange animal, language, and the more I reflect on it, the more I think that it is a chameleon: it changes in meaning (not, of course, in strict definition) from one person to the next and this meaning depends largely on background, upbringing, personality, life experiences, etc.
The subjectivity of language rarely crosses our minds simply because communicating is something we take entirely for granted, but it’s illustrated in all kinds of examples which surround us daily. For the moment, let’s create some hypothetical ones: say you walk up to a little girl playing jump rope on the sidewalk who has a stable, affectionate family, and ask her what the word “love” means. She will probably look up at you with wide, innocent eyes and say “love is my Mommy and Daddy.” This little girl has a secure, functional home-life, a sanctuary that will shelter her and welcome her back with open arms when she comes in crying because she fell on that sidewalk trying to jump-rope. Of course, given this, she naturally defines love based on her parents because all she has known is their warmth and security and we always attribute to love the very highest and best things we have known. (Or, for some of us, the things we have only heard about).
To switch gears, now, picture walking up to another little girl scurrying down the street, her shoulders stiff, her eyes darting here and there as a symptom of the traumatic household she lives in; you ask this young lady what “love” is and she looks up at you with fright behind her dimmed eyes and, after giving you the once-over, run away in fear of this stranger that Mommy has warned her about. What is love to her, then? We will never know but we certainly hope she finds out in her lifetime. I highly suspect that she has no idea herself at this point, therefore she and the other little girl have no comparable understanding of the word “love” although they both will use the same term throughout the course of their young lives and will both spell it using the exact same four letters.
I have never found the word “love” to mean the same thing to all people (although they may all know the technical definition), no matter if they are the little girl with the happy family or the one who doesn’t know anything about affection and warmth. And there’s really no need to confine ourselves to “love” when so many other words tell the exact same story. For instance, I can easily walk straight through the front door of my home and announce that I feel ecstatic, but I am sure that not one person in my house will be able to perfectly understand what I mean. My little sisters and brothers probably do not even know the technical definition of the word and so it is robbed of meaning altogether (so many children are guilty of petty theft in this context, especially when it comes to stealing from the “big words”). The older members of the family are more likely to have an idea of what I mean, but even they won’t understand in full that I am “ecstatic” because they do not completely comprehend what is making me feel that way and so do not absolutely know why that word fits and if it is even being used accurately.
Basically, everything we have known, heard, and seen transforms us into walking dictionaries that tell us how to interpret this phrase, that expression, those words. We honor language as powerful, and it certainly is, but at the end of the day it is us that wields the influence because our whole lives determine the plight of the words we use.
Of course, we haven’t even taken into account the effect of deception on language. Unfortunately, we are probably all familiar with the fact that words can be used deceptively in many different ways, sometimes not always intentionally. People can come up to you and feed you a falsehood, saying exactly what they mean without allowing an ounce to truth to be conveyed through their communication. On the other hand, you can witness Miss Baker, who hates Miss Jones, encounter Miss Jones in a board meeting and engage her in small talk and pleasantries as if she (Miss Baker, that is) didn’t know the meaning of negative feelings. In this case, language was used to mask the truth, not murder it like outright deception, but the effect is the same and communication has no more happened then if both parties had remained in stony silence.
It would be helpful to acknowledge that that is what a great deal of communication turns out to be: silence. So many words are used in such abundance but nothing has actually been said that reaches across the barrier of background, experience, understanding, masks, and facades. In the end, it’s not the words themselves that we should be solely focusing on, but the emphasis on what they mean to the people to whom we are speaking and the chance that maybe a common understanding can be reached. After all, I can develop friendships and familial connections in an amazingly deep way if I learn how these lovely people express themselves uniquely through both the word they use and the personal meanings that they assign to them. Really, there’s a definite possibility that language can lead us to a deeper knowledge of each other, but only if we remember the plight of words.