Just words: I give you my word

Scrabble: FEEL

And you get 7 points for this.

I’d like a word with you.
I give you my word.
You are twisting my words.
This blog became popular just by word of mouth.
In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God.

This is a new beginning. The beginning of a series of blog posts. For each post in the series Just Words, I will select one word. Just one. Look at it from different angles. Play with it a little. Perhaps, see it in a new light. In a different context. And, today’s word is

the word

We are starting with an old Germanic noun. Linguists reconstructed a form wurda in Proto-Germanic, the assumed precursor to languages like Danish, Dutch, English, Friesian, German, and Swedish.

Is it important to be more aware of each individual word? Especially an old one such as word? One that we use quite frequently and in different contexts? One that different people have been using over many centuries?

Yes, that’s a rhetorical question. Before I answer it, confession time: I am a philologist. (In Greek: philo- = loving; logos = word) I love words. Using them. (My family, friends, and colleagues tell me I use too many too often.)

So, my answer: Yes, being aware of one’s words is important. For two reasons: Words have consequences. Depending on the words you use, people will hear something different, feel something different, understand something different, or do something different. Or as Carl Sandburg said: Be careful with your words: once said they can only be forgiven, not forgotten. Words are powerful tools. Words can pinpoint and cover up. They can heal and hurt. And they can clarify and obscure. And so much more. Let me tell you two stories to illustrate.

I grew up in Finsterwalde in Germany. In this small town is a short street, named after Max Schmidt. The Max-Schmidt-Straße. For many years, I did not know who Max Schmidt had been.

1943. The war was in its fourth year. Max, a merchant in town, met with others in his local pub. Small talk and a beer or two. A time to tell jokes and anecdotes. Often with few words; one knew and understood each other. A popular opening gambit was the question: Do you already know the latest joke? The friendly reply was: no. And then the joke would be told. So, Max Schmidt sat down with his buddies and opened the conversation with “Do you already know the latest joke?” … … … “We will win the war.” One of the listeners mentioned the 5-word joke to a Nazi official in town. The Gestapo interrogated Max Schmidt. He came before the “People’s Court”, was accused of Wehrkraftzersetzung – undermining military force – sentenced to death, and executed in July of 1944.
For a 5-word joke.

When I was a student of Linguistics, I learned about the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, a hypothesis that discusses the relationship between linguistic structures in a language and people’s thinking and cultural values.

Benjamin Lee Whorf, an American linguist and chemical engineer, became an engineer for the Hartford Fire Insurance Company in 1919. In one incident, a worker had placed containers with liquid next to a heater, which started a fire. The containers were labeled “highly inflammable”. The worker had believed that inflammable was the opposite of flammable, like incomplete is the opposite of complete.
2 words. 1 prefix. The in- in incomplete or the in- in insure.

Do words matter? Even just one word? Carelessly or imprecisely used? The things we do with words …

Does it matter whether we talk about social distancing or physical distancing under COVID-19? Should one call it the Chinese virus? Are love and hate opposites? Can one compare apples and oranges? And which one is a correct word?

I will go through this word for word. You can take my word for it.

Originally, I posted this text on in the blog of our Panta Rhei Enterprise on May 2, 2020. It was indeed the first one in a small series, which I am now transferring here to this site.