The Problem with WORDS

Neil Greenberg



1988 … I have a powerful urge to know the causes of things.  Like most of my colleagues and probably all infants, I want to know the chains of causation … to explain them if only to my self, to understand them … and the to share that understanding.  (that “need to share” is an interesting problem on its own … maybe by sharing I understand more completely … maybe I seek corroboration … more sources of confidence in the validity of an idea … that would make it “real”) (But Goethe (like the Velveteen Rabbit) said only love provides the insight that makes things real)   My favorite professor, seemingly sympathetic about my frustration in the laboratory once said, “if you can’t explain it, describe the shit out of it.”   He seems to be right in a way that was unexpected: the attempt to find the right words, to describe … that is, the artist’s problem, the poet’s job … leads to unexpected juxtapositions of the extended meanings of the words I use: wholly new threads of thinking and feeling suddenly twitch like resonating strings… sudden digressions (the ADHD disposition?) become epiphanies. 

Laura Wait (Resonance II, encaustic/mixed media)

2012 … I’ve got to use words if I want to negotiate along the edge of what can be understood as science –shared understanding– My concern for a few years was bridging the “explanatory gap.” (to abuse the metaphor: the gap between subjective and objective is like a crevice I encountered on a hike in Black Canyon, and no one has shown me a convincing way to safely get across– I am however, perhaps, overly cautious)


“Each human language represents a solution to the communicative needs of its community.” The language available to speak to chemical senses seems particularly impoverished –but perhaps only in English, where “the chemical senses play a minor role in language: they appear to be weakly lexicalised (there are few words for these senses); those words appear with low frequency in corpora; and under experimental conditions, English speakers struggle to name smells and tastes.” Quite unlike the place of chemical sensation in other human populations.  (from Asifa Majid’s presentation, “Communicating about the chemical senses in the world’s languages,” at a meeting on “Chemical communication in humans” organized by the Royal Society in 2019 (https://royalsociety.org/science-events-and-lectures/2019/04/chemical-communication/ )




“Words are but symbols for the relations of things to one another and to us; nowhere do they touch upon absolute truth…. through words and concepts we shall never reach beyond the wall off relations, to some sort of fabulous primal ground of things.”

(Friedrich Nietzsche (1873) Philosophy In The Tragic Age Of The Greeks)



WORDS are always approximations of what they hope to mean: they have meaning in terms of the connections in the minds of those using them. They are, in detail, UNIQUE, and in using them we tolerate more-or-less ambiguity:  For example, “I think… if it is true that there are as many minds as there are heads, then there are as many kinds of love as there are hearts.”   Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina  (see A&O notes on uniqueness)  (from A&O notes on WORDS)





WORDS are our crystalized thoughts

but thoughts are complex and exact matches may never be found.  In fact,

the problem of translation within and between our multiple perspectives is arguably

at the center of ART & ORGANISM:

Look at the A&O web page on TRANSLATION 





W. H. Auden once wrote that Language is the mother, not the handmaiden, of thought; words will tell you things you never thought or felt before” (quoted in A&O notes).  

This extraordinary power of words may be attributable to its pleiotropy (see “The Problem with Words”).  Every word exits in mind at the center of an intuitive mind-map in which more-or-less of all it might refer to are perceived (almost) simultaneously.


WORDS can be vectors in our brain’s understanding of time and space[1].   WORDS have MEANING—and like everything else we discuss in A&O meaning relies on connectedness:  for example, the words poets choose have more-or-less meaning.  Robert Pogue Harrison reviewed a translation of Canti by Giacomo Leopardi (in NYRB February 10, 2011) & commented on a very significant element for all writers to consider:

An …”exasperating feature of Leopardi’s poetry for the English translator is its systematic deployment of common words. Leopardi sheds light on this practice in his notebooks, where he draws a distinction between what he called parole and termini, words and terms. Parole are words that have been in circulation through the ages and contain a number of associations, connotations, and latent meanings. Termini, by contrast, are unhistorical, univocal, often technical terms that do not connote, only denote. By preserving their metaphorical and sensory history, parole come with a host of “accessory images,” whereas termini “offer only a single idea of the object signified.” Leopardi elaborates: “If I call a plant or animal by the Linnaean name, I have aroused none of these [accessory] images, even though the thing itself is clearly indicated.”   

                                                            [See A&O notes on The Problem with Wordsconnections and ambiguity]

Of course each of us takes each word and reconstructs its meaning from past association … this ambiguity is arguably a great source of confusion and the fountainhead of creativity … deploying this to effect is part of the implicit genius of the great poets, as we each add new meanings from our own unique experience in the reconstruction of key words .  We collaborate in the creative genius of the artist–see A&O notes on Delacroix on painting as communication.



[1]  Words as vectors in multidimensional space: Semantic projection recovers rich human knowledge of multiple object features from word embeddings. (Grand et al. in Nat Hum Behav 6, 975–987 (2022))





IS a WORD a kind of TRAIT?   Can I say that words are pleiotropic… have multiple meanings any one of which can—like an evolutionary adaptation—strike out in a new direction when their environment changes?  (see above)



Sometimes I feel jargon is poetry; a familiar word used in an unfamiliar, even rare sense.  I’m drawn to jargon.  I’ve always felt that unfamiliar or foreign words can crystalize a new meaning or a new facet of an old meaning—and the Wikipedia list of mathematical jargon I just came across may be a good example—can the traditional baggage evoke new insights in the context of mathematics?  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_mathematical_jargon.  Can these applications reflect back into the deep meaning of the word?




“The other night I was reading the dictionary….

I thought it was a poem about everything.”

—Steven Wright.


Joseph Campbell once wrote, “The best things can’t be told . . .”  Yet most of us have found ourselves deeply moved by a combinations of words that seem to evoke deep feelings that could not in any other way be so well expressed. 

 At a presentation about poetry of spirituality at the Westside UU congregation a few years ago I patched together an Opening Prayer from the words of Blaise Pascal, Albert Einstein, and John F Kennedy:  The heart has its reasons of which reason knows not. For the heart’s  intuition is a sacred gift and our rational mind is a faithful servant, but Woe to the society that “honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”  / Let us remember that in the end, our choices are aesthetic.  /  Let us remember that when power leads to arrogance, poetry can restore our limitations.  /  That when power narrows our concern, poetry reminds us of the richness and diversity of existence.   /  That when power corrupts, poetry cleanses.   /  Let us honor the art that undertakes the sharing of the deepest layers of humanity in the light of the truths which are the touchstone of our judgement.

 these words imply that poetry is an art form which is somehow more pure and direct in its communication.  (but all language is “fossil poetry,” Emerson reminds us)



There is a powerful line by the Romantic era poet, Novalis[1]

Poetry heals the wounds inflicted by reason



Sometimes words are effective in poetry because of HOW THEY SOUND, not WHAT THEY MEAN — the French Symbolist poets (among others) understood this. (see the idea in the context of the poet, Paul Valéry: in 1890. Valéry was introduced into the Parisian literary circle of Mallarmé, whose work Valéry revered. Mallarmé was the leading figure of Symbolism, the movement  [which in French poetry was] highly metaphorical, deliberately esoteric [and] had turned away from traditional French classicism and clarity in favor of indeterminacy, synesthesia, and an emphasis on the musicality of language.” (from “The Dream of Pure Expression” by Claire Messud (2020)  Reviewing: The Idea of Perfection: The Poetry and Prose of Paul Valéry , in The New York Review


….  My daily revelation is that it is the effort to create poetry that heals as much as the poem itself.  Even the awful stuff: “All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling” (Oscar Wilde); but also, “A poem is never finished only abandoned” (Paul Valery)  (but Rabbi Tarfon tells us, You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”)


[1] Novalis  outlined in Wikipedia and discussed in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  The line quoted is from Quote, Unquote (1989) by Jonathan Williams, p. 136 in Wikiquotes)

“Words don’t have meaning, we do” – watch John Koenig about “words” … Then connect to an ancient idea:

“we see the world not as it is, but as we are” (Talmud)   


Many of us have more-or-less trouble expressing our feelings.  Of the constellation of possible interacting systems that may be responsible for this, some traits–in excess–can cause physical symptoms … and sometimes these can be mitigated by words.  Read Woolridge (2020) on “how dark feeling will haunt us until they are expressed in words” in AEON 2020.  About traits in excess, see the A&O notes on the Delphic Maxim.



The Untranslatable Emotions You Never Knew You Had This article gives a basis for discussing the adaptive advantage of a larger vocabulary: “emotion vocabulary is a bit like a directory, allowing you to call up a greater number of strategies to cope with life.”  

John Koenig’s You Tube introduction of The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows (also website)

In your notebook, relate feelings you have experienced for which no single word or simple phrase will suffice. If a word needs to be invented, so be it! Look to John Koenig’s site for inspiration. 

Be an etymologist:  Find a couple of romantic stories (narratives that delight) about familiar words.  (Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds us that “The etymologist finds the deadest word to have been once a brilliant picture. Language is fossil poetry. As the limestone of the continent consists of infinite masses of the shells of animalcules, so language is made up of images, or tropes, which now, in their secondary use, have long ceased to remind us of their poetic origin.”)

FOSSIL POETRY –romantic idea but still, POETRY is mainly words, once again, Joseph Campbell’s comment is relevant:

 The best things cannot be told, the second best are  misunderstood.  After that comes civilized conversation;  after that, mass indoctrination; after that,  intercultural exchange.   And so, proceeding, we come to  the problem of communication: the opening, that is to  say, of one’s own truth and depth to the depth and truth  of another in such a way as to establish an authentic  community of existence. (Joseph Campbell 1968 The  Masks of God: Creative Mythology p.84) link



There is an old Latin motto (usually applied to lawyers) that might apply here:

Ignotum per ignotius,

(an explanation more obscure than the thing it is meant to explain)


Does this sound cynical?  The cynicism about words is far reaching:

 Words are like leaves; and where they most abound, Much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found”   (Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism, II)

“Words are at least the tombs of ideas” (George Santayana (1944) Persons and  Places Vol I, ch 14)

This attitude helps us resist the tyranny of words:  “I am not yet so lost in lexicography,” Samuel Johnson wrote, “as to forget that words are the daughters of earth, and that things are the sons of heaven.”

(Samuel Johnson’s Preface to  Dictionary of the  English Language 1755)




So, what is poetry?  —An art form that communicates with words instead of pen or paint, bronze or marble or wood, or one’s own body, as in dance.  (and there is a cascade of quotes at POETRY that hems in the meaning of poetry from numerous directions.

 [it also reminds us that our perceptions and understanding are deeply affected by the order in which words are presented – a phenomenon not lost on some artists who seek to control your visual scanning of a work of art by using elements that get and hold attention.]  

Artists other than poets often defend their work as unencumbered by words –Many great artists, when asked what their work meant, are known to have replied that if they could have put it into words, they would not have had to paint (or sculpt, dance, or play it on the piano).


Picasso, when asked to analyze the symbolism of one of his   paintings (Guernica) replied, “if I had wanted to put it into words (I) would have. . . written a book”   (Canaday, 1959)

 But even artist who work in words have a similar disposition:  I think it was Frost who responded to a well meaning matron that asked about the meaning of a poem, “You mean say it again in worse words?”


Words so various in their meaning, so easily misconstrued.  Here is an exercise I do in some classes  –we each of us place a word in the center of a page, say “ART,” and then rapidly, so rapidly that there is not time to think, write down our free associations.  We each create a web of connections to other words that are freely associated with “ART” when we compare our mind maps (as they are called) we find remarkably little overlap.  We can more-or-less agree on a definition, but necessarily on a meaning

So when words are strung together into language they can be seen as landmarks on the map of our consciousness—”The limits of my language mean the limits of my world,” said Wittgenstein.   (Die Grenzen meiner Sprache bedeuten die Grenzen meiner Welt. Ludwig Wittgenstein 1889/1951;  Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922) p. 148)  But then,  “The map is not the territory,” said Korzybski.  “A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness. . . . If we reflect upon our languages, we find that at best the must be considered only as maps.  A word is not the object it represents . . . the disregard of these complexities is tragically disastrous in daily life and science.” (p 58.  Alfred Korzybski 1948.  Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics. (3rd edition) The International Non-Aristotelian Publishing Co, Lakeville CT) –reminding us that words stand for things, they are rarely things in themselves. (but see “asemic art”).  Yet words are a large part of how we understand and are understood.  

WORDS have more-or-less precision:  READ  Borges on the map-maker .  so we seek the best words we can: all experience may be ineffable – incommunicable — we simply look for the best approximation of what we believe, what we think, what we feel – and (to minimize dissonance) either what we perceive or think or express can be “tweaked” to make the imprecision less uncomfortable.]   [BEST APPROXIMATION of TRUTH can refer to the highest ambition of all communications –particularly in SCIENCE; sometimes spoken of as an asymptote of truth –always approaching but never touching the lines that frame it.]  A mantra you will hear often “Tell the best story you can with the best facts you have.”  (recalling that in science, facts emerge from experience and can always be improved or abandoned)



“Words, words, words. With the advent of the stream of consciousness in twentieth-century literature, it has come to seem that the self is very much a thing made of words, a verbal construction forever narrating itself and reconstituting itself in language. In line with the dominant, internalist view of consciousness, it is assumed that this all takes place in the brain—specifically, two parts known as Wernicke’s area and Broca’s area in the left hemisphere. So, direct perception of sights and sounds in the world outside the body are very quickly ordered and colored by language inside our heads. “Once a thing is conceived in the mind,” wrote the poet Horace in the first century BC, “the words to express it soon present themselves.” And we call this thinking. All our experience can be reshuffled, interconnected, dissected, evoked, or willfully altered in language, and these thoughts are then stored in our brains.” (from the introduction to a discussion between Riccardo Manzotti and Tim Parks  about words and consciousness (in the New York Review Daily, December 27, 2017)


In DEEP ethology we know to begin with DESCRIPTION of whatever we are focusing on– a shared vocabulary is critical IF we agree on meanings

But there is a significant cultural influence on what is actually represented by a word: 

and its sometimes subtle but always critical contribution to insight about a phenomenon … but always keep in mind, words constrain as much as they enable expression and thinking about experience—what you see and feel and think. 


As an art student I learned some words that had no baggage– their meanings were completely new to me but referred to ideas that were nevertheless important.  A few Japanese terms for aesthetic qualities not easily otherwise described.  (once a feeling is isolated and brought to our cognitive foreground–like an item in a museum–our relationship to it changes: we find more meaning in it …  (recall that “meaning” often means “connectedness” –can we say “everything is defined in terms of everything else?”  (“what if anything,” the metaphysically-inclined amongst you may ask, “stands outside of–or beyond–definition?”)


    • Wabi: a subjective feeling evoked by an object; unassuming, solitary, calm, quiet, still, impoverished or unpretentious; melancholic, lonely, desolate (classic image: abandoned fisherman’s shack on a lonely beach buffeted by a strong wind on a gray wintry day) 
    • Sabi: ancient, mature, seasoned, serene, mellowed, antique; lonely, solitary or melancholic (classic image: patina and signs of age/wear on a treasured antique)
      • these terms are often used tgogether (Wabi-Sabi = the beauty of age and the satisfying acceptance of imperfection) and resonate with gezellig (Dutch for “cozy warm feelings for what’s old or quaint”) 
    • Shibui: restrained, quiet, composed, understated, reserved, sedate; refined, elegant (classic images: a single delicate flower breaching cracks in a sidewalk; the quiet understated elegance of a formal tea ceremony)
    • Yugen: profound, uncertain, subtle; dark and mysterious (classic image: moon shining behind a veil of clouds, or the morning mist veiling a mountainside)


And here is how Fritjof Capra, celebrate author of the Tao of Physics, put it:

“Since words are always an abstract, approximate map of reality, the verbal interpretations of a scientific experiment or of a mystical insight are necessarily inaccurate and incomplete. . . .the realization that all  models and theories are approximate is basic to modern scientific research.  Thus the aphorism of Einstein, ‘As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.’  Fritjof Capra 1975, in The Tao of Physics, 41.    The same could be said of words!


Words must be related to meaning to be useful.  And this is underscored by the experience of meaninglessness as exemplified in the koan riddles of Zen Buddhism.

 Koans force us to confront the tyranny of words, particularly the way they can substitute for experience–so sometimes we live the word and not the experience.  A bogus existence.

 Kathy is fond of saying a value is not a value until it is acted upon, until we stop talking the talk and begin to walk the walk.

How words are organized, how organization affects meaning …



I think that poetry, changing the context and relationships of words, makes us see beyond their conventional definitions to their deeper meaning.


Artists sometimes speak of transparency, referring to the clarity of their communications.

The clearest commune might be Star Trek’s Dr Spock doing the “mind meld” so that he might know another person (or creature’s) thoughts directly.  That’s science fiction.


But we cannot know things directly !  Sorry ! 


STILL, even more than the “deeper meaning” of words … the struggle to put experience into words triggers cascades (if not avalanches) of free associations in unexpected directions … of course maybe that’s only MY wiring. (alternative wiring is getting more attention and respect with the advent of insights into (for example) the autism spectrum.

 Mark Johnson introduced his book with the heading,

“Meaning is More Than Words and Deeper than Concepts.” 

What follows is about 300 pages making the case for the aesthetic and emotional aspects of meaning, chiding the philosophers for doing little more than lip-service in rejecting Cartesian dualism and embracing the emerging paradigm of “embodied cognition,” an inevitable outcome of phenomenological thinking. (The Meaning of the Body, 2007 Univ Chi Press)


Biology, gnosis, bodhi, pure light.

There is a barrier of flesh between us and the world, between each of us — and we only know anything outside ourselves by virtue of notoriously inaccurate sensors –sense organs– embedded in that flesh.  And then, even that which is within us is constructed of the imperfect sense impressions that have come our way.


OF COURSE we are changed by our experiences … but what about the “spiritual experience?”  Is attaining such a transformative experience something that meets a biological need? does it contribute to biological fitness? 


“We may dance toward it and away, achieve glimpses, and even dwell in its beauty for a time; yet few are those that have been confirmed in that knowledge of its ubiquity which antiquity called gnosis and the Orient calls bodhi: full awakening to the crystalline purity of the bed or ground of one’s own and yet the world’s true being.  Like perfectly transparent crystal, it is there, yet as though not there; and all things, when seen through it, become luminous in its light” (Joseph Campbell 1968 — speaking of “aesthetic arrest”).  Joseph Campbell. The Masks of God: Creative Mythology.  The Viking Press.  1968  p. 66) 


But ordinary folks do the best they can.  And it can be one of humanities most rare but affecting moments to fully understand, and to be fully understood.  In fact, it’s often regarded as profoundly spiritual.


Some folks can barely live without it.


The mindmaps I mentioned dramatically highlight the extent to how different the meanings of words we think we understand can be.  Reflecting on how the same word can mean such different things to each of us are a vivid reminder of how words can encumber us. 

 BUT it is “By words that the mind is winged” said the ancient Greek playwright, Aristophanes (“The Birds,” 400 BC)

 And yet we have poetry!

 Words are socially constructed  —  products of our cumulative experience.

Sometimes it seems that the more we learn, the less we know.  Here are two poems contributed by one of my students  studying kids: 

I would like to go inside myself.

I would like my brain to be a table.

My heart could be my kid.

Inside my hand could be my husband,

and then I could have my bones as pets.

(Honey Jackson, 1st grade)



Once I had a feeling I was so short,

I felt like a short socket.

Once I had a feeling because I had a fight,

I felt like a burning rope.

Once I had a feeling about these flowers that loved each other,

So they went and kissed and felt like a ball of fire.

(Lorraine Fedison, 6th grade)


(contributed by Maria Case 1999)



 My old friend Howard Bloom puts it this way,

“The brain is the funnel in a vortex of other people, the eye in a whirlwind of society.  Our fellow humans are as much a part of the process we call self as are the cells within our skin.  So what we are and how we think are the eye of a larger hurricane–the shifting storm we call a group of friends, a family, employers, folks who see us on the street, strangers that we meet, subcultures we belong to and others we would like to join.  In short the self is organized by tidal spirals of humanity.” 


POETRY is often seen to be one of the supreme accomplishments of culture –cultured people are said to know or appreciate poetry.  Yet Oscar Wilde, notoriously perceptive about art and culture Wilde wrote in De Profundis that, “most people are  other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s  opinions, their life a mimicry, their passions a  quotation…. One realizes one’s soul [only] by getting  rid of all culture.”    (Think about this and then look in on “Listening Angels.” )

 And yet Oscar Wilde could also state    

“It is through Art, and through Art only, that we can realise our perfection; through Art, and through Art only, that we can shield ourselves from the sordid perils of actual existence.”  (Oscar Wilde,  Intentions, 1891,  ‘The Critic as Artist’ pt. 2)

 We are ourselves and we are us

 Putting words to work.

Whatever words have come to mean to us as individuals, they are socially constructed –and by a relatively superficial part of our brains at that!.  And sometimes only words can crash through the barrier of socially constructed meanings to something more primal beneath.


The great French artist, Delacroix, once wrote,

“The human mind is strangely made . . . there is a thick crust which must be broken before I can take heart in any thing; a rebellious piece of ground that resists the ploughshare and the hoe.  But with a little tenacity, its unfriendliness suddenly vanishes.  It is prodigal with fruit and flowers.  One simply cannot gather them all.”  Delacroix, 7 May 1824 (quoted by Schneider, Daniel E. 1950, p.139. The Psychoanalyst and the Artist. New American Library, N.Y.) 


The philosopher, Wittgenstein:  “words are like a skin on a deep water” that we must then penetrate.  “We must, in the art critic Arnheim’s view, “see to it that in every field of study . . . the student proceeds from the mere husks of communication to the play of the real forces to which communication points.”  Arnheim (1966) cites the philosopher Wittgenstein: die Worte sind wie die Haut auf  einem tiefen Wasser (Notebooks, 1914-1916, p. 52)


Here is a theory. 

(a) As words apply to us and the world they in part construct us and our world by creating expectations –and thus perceptions– of the world

(b) But words are also uniquely suited to penetrate the barrier they themselves can create between an individual (perceived in words) and the authentic, individual self beneath that crust of language – the part of one’s self that cannot be put into words



Each form of art speaks to its respective sense – visual, auditory – but the connection between artist and his audience –you– involves another way that he or she gets inside your head to forge a bond:   When we see a dancer fly –we fly similarly in a very real sense , or a sculpture poised with straining muscles to hurl a javelin, our muscles tense.


What’s so special about poetry?  

The poet Howard Nemerof said

“There is no reality of which we can speak with the precision of experience, and there are many experiences we cannot have directly, yet words cannot even approximate such indirect referring.”  

He quoted the great physicist Neils Bohr lamenting of the difficulty of expressing one’s self in words:  “We must be clear that, when it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry.” 

Werner Heisenberg spoke to the problems in communicate insight or understanding: “Any concepts or words which have been formed in the past through the interplay between the world and ourselves are not really sharply defined with respect to their meaning: that is to say, we do not know exactly how far they will help us in finding our way in the world. We often know that they can be applied to a wide range of inner or outer experience, but we practically never know precisely the limits of their applicability. This is true even of the simplest and most general concepts like “existence” and “space and time“. Therefore, it will never be possible by pure reason to arrive at some absolute truth. The concepts may, however, be sharply defined with regard to their connections.” (From Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science (1958) Lectures delivered at University of St. Andrews, Scotland, Winter 1955-56.)


And Matthew Arnold  –you remember him, (“ignorant armies clashing by night. . . .”)

“Without poetry, our science will appear incomplete,” he said, “and most of what now passes with us for religion and philosophy will be replaced by poetry.”  (Essays in Criticism Second Series (1888) ‘The Study of Poetry’)


This resonates with a feeling I have and have often expressed to you: At its depths, SCIENCE is a SPIRITUAL enterprise

Science seeks to approximate the truth,  but as the Chinese sage Yuan Wu said,  “Searching for the Truth through words and speech is like sticking your head in a bowl of glue”

But it can point you in the right direction!


Remember Wittgenstein? ”The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”  

“I sometimes hold it half a sin

To put in words the grief I feel;

For words, like Nature, half reveal

And half conceal the Soul within.”

(Alfred, Lord Tennyson, In Memorium, v)


Walt Whitman wrote that

 “A perfect writer would make words sing, dance, kiss, do the male and female act, bear children, weep, bleed, rage, stab, steal, fire cannon, steer ships, sack cities, charge with cavalry or infantry, or do anything, that man or woman or the natural powers can do.

“Latent, in a great user of words, must actually be all passions, crimes, trades, animals, stars, God, sex, the past, might, space, metals, and the like — because these are the words, and he who is not these, plays with a foreign tongue, turning helplessly to dictionaries and authorities.  –How can I tell you? — I put many things on record that you will not understand at first — perhaps not in a year — but they must be (are to be) understood. — The earth, I see, writes with prodigal clear hands all summer, forever, and all winter also, content, and certain to be understood in time — as, doubtless, only the greatest user of words himself full enjoys and understands himself”   Walt Whitman, from his critical writings cited in The New Walt Whitman Handbook, NYU, by Gay Wilson Allen; quoted in NYTBR,  NWP,  lost date,  p47.


Unlike other means of expression, words are peculiar –a sigh or yawn might be understood fairly directly, but language involves more-or-less arbitrary meanings given to puffs of air –they have no inward meaning: “The innocent belief that words have an essential or inward meaning can lead to appalling confusion and waste of time. Let us take it that our business is to attach words to ideas and definitions, not to attach definitions to words.”  By P. B. Medawar, cited in  NYRB. By Chemistry Nobel laureate (1962), M. F. Perutz  [NYRB ,900816,15]

Words, as Aldous Huxley  put it,”are the instruments of thought; they form the  channel along which thought flows; they are the moulds  in which thought is shaped.

Words are a more-or-less ephemeral extension of the  psyche corporealized.  A means by which the inner world is externalized.  A sense of the spiritual dimension of words emerges unbidden every time I string a bunch together for a sermon. 

I think first of the bridges and barriers we build with words: their endless regress and  their finality.  The richness and poverty of languages,  including those of the heart, those “begat in the ventricles of mind,”  and those that flow freely from our bodies–our dance, our music, our art.


Words may be humanities most amazing invention.  They are magical! 

In fact, here is what Freud wrote:

In the beginning, “words and magic were. . . one and the same thing, and  even today words contain much of their magical power.  By words one can  give to another the greatest happiness or bring about utter despair. . .  Words call forth emotion and are universally the means by which we  influence our fellow creatures.”   (Freud’s A General Introduction to  Psychoanalysis)


Lord Byron observed that

The mind can make substance,

and people planets of its own with beings

brighter than we have been,

and give A breath to forms which can outlive all flesh.


I think the richness and potential, the mystery and magic of words is manifest anytime we hear them expressed by those who have been touched by them


To conclude and to explore this,  I have asked some family and friends and students to share words that have affected them — what are yours?

Alexander Stern (2019) tell about how “in the film The Big Sleep (1946), the private eye Philip Marlowe (played by Humphrey Bogart) calls at the house of General Sternwood to discuss his two daughters.

They sit in the greenhouse as the wealthy widower recounts an episode of blackmail involving his younger daughter. At one point, Marlowe interjects with an interested and knowing ‘hmm’.

‘What does that mean?’ Sternwood asks suspiciously.

Marlowe lets out a clipped chuckle and says: ‘It means, “Hmm”.’

Compare to Freud: “Sometime a cigar is just a cigar” (verbal quip, 1920)


  • Emerson: “Language is fossil poetry,” (1844) . Essays. Second Series: ‘The Poet’) 




WORDS – etymology – hidden histories (fossil poetry)


Words for feelings: untranslatable  emotions;  The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows including beautiful and useful words or phrases such as sonder, lacheism, moment of tangency 

GLOSSARY – emphasizes the sometimes rare meaning of a term that is emphasized in A&O

Asemic Artnotes on Asemic Art  – What is communicated when we write words without semantic meaning?

Language and the Brain  

What can said without words? e.g., see marina-abramovic-at-moma-in-2010  (also go to reading from the British Psychological Society)  

The Problem with Words: https://neilgreenberg.com/ao-words/

Translation https://neilgreenberg.com/ao-communication-translation/




tweaked 5-20-2009 & 11-02-2012 & 12-21-2019 & 2022