They’re only words -- Bill Kirton
As writers, we’re frequently expected to articulate shared experiences on behalf of those of our fellows less fluent with words. To be fair, that’s also true of composers, visual artists, dancers and many others. But it’s the fact that we use words (such as lockdown, social distancing, isolation, contact) that seems to put us more immediately in the firing line. According to experts in linguistics, words are, after all, ‘signifiers’, i.e. they ‘signify’ some thing, give it ‘significance’. In other words, in highly inadequate terms, they ‘mean’ something definite.
Those of you who are poets will immediately (and rightly) insist that that’s far too restrictive a notion. From Yeats’s ‘Silver apples of the moon’ and ‘golden apples of the sun’ to Beckett’s ‘Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better’, a word’s ‘meaning’ is only a starting point, an approximation, a thing of potential.
And yet the expectation is still that we can shuffle a few wee signifiers together to provide hope, comfort, answers to people whose lives have been unimaginably distorted by a ‘thing’ which was first thought to be a poison, then a life-form, then a biological chemical, and generally seems to exist in either a living or non-living state. (My apologies to the authors of various articles, books, etc, which I consulted when trying to find out what a ‘virus’ is. I haven’t quoted anyone directly but tried to simplify their learned discourses to make them accessible to my totally inexpert brain.)
In fact, the 1946 Nobel Prize in chemistry was won by Wendell M. Stanley and some colleagues who found that a virus is a package of complex biochemicals which lacks essential systems necessary for metabolic functions, which, apparently, constitute the biochemical activity of life. So, rather than being organisms, viruses are mini chemistry sets.
Nevertheless, those are the things which have created our new reality, the one which calls for us to find the words to redefine previously familiar concepts such as closeness, interaction, empathy and society.
At the same time, official pronouncements about the global pandemic and the associated statistics, at least in the UK and many other supposedly enlightened ‘civilisations’, are being conveyed through evasions, approximations, false information, incompetence and terminologies informed by political rather than scientific or medical principles.
So where does that position us hapless wordsmiths? By way of illustration, I leave you with a personal dilemma I faced back in the days when I was writing scripts for various aspects of oil-related activities – safety videos, product launches, promotional materials and the like. One job was to convince drilling companies of the efficiency of a downhole plug which, for purposes of anonymity, I’ll call AcmeClad. I emailed the manufacturers asking for a description of the plug and its functions. I’ve used their reply in writing workshops many times since to illustrate the power or otherwise of words. In its entirety, it ran:
‘Acmeclad is of a monocoque construction comprising a polymeric textile reinforcement encapsulated within a neoprene outer layer complete with integral neoprene strakes, bonded to a polypropylene penetration-resistant felt impregnated with a corrosion inhibitor or biocide contained within a water resistant thixotropic gel as dictated by the application for which the system will be supplied.’
I rest my case.