Words carry history, meaning intent. Words matter. Register file photo

Gerry Turcotte: Words, words, words

  • March 26, 2021

Growing up in Montreal, with a mother who couldn’t speak French and a father who couldn’t speak English, I had an uncanny understanding of the power of words.

I knew, even as a five-year-old, that I could move between the spaces in my parents’ understanding to get an ice cream when first it was denied, or get a “yes” where once there was a “no.” In my novel, Flying in Silence, I spoke of the risks and opportunities of living between worlds, the times when I de-escalated an argument by deliberately mistranslating — “Dad says he can’t be mad at you because your beauty overwhelms him” — or hid in respective worlds, English and French, by learning to erase my accent in both tongues.

So words have always been important to me. The only gift my father ever gave me directly (gifts were my mother’s bounty), was a copy of The Reader’s Digest Great Encyclopaedic Dictionary, a treasure trove of definitions, with separate sections on medical, science and other specialist terminologies, an English-French, an English-Spanish and even an English-German appendix. It was the thesaurus, though, that won me over most.

I had always known, through my perpetual in-betweenness, that words were many and varied, with the same elaborate variety as colours in a rainbow. The thesaurus proved that this was true and I read this section of the book voraciously, absorbing, consuming, devouring, assimilating, and many more synonyms beside.

To this day I feel a burst of unexpected joy when I encounter a word I haven’t seen before or used in a context that surprises me. Lagniappe is one such word, meaning a small gift, a surprise benevolence, an unexpected offering to sweeten a deal: a shopkeeper throwing in an extra piece of produce to reward a larger purchase. When I read this in Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi (1883), I was further delighted to learn that it was French from Louisiana, but adapted from the Spanish: la ñapa. The word itself was a celebration of translation, a lagniappe, a gift from one place to another.

Words matter. They carry meaning, history, value and intent. They can also be wasted and misused. When Polonius asks Hamlet what he is reading, the despondent prince replies, “Words, words, words.” This is the fear of all writers, that their words might be vacuous, or dismissed, pointless or unwanted. And yet in our society we have betrayed language and its vast potential to educate, unite and inform. We have turned our backs on the opportunity to have conversations, resorting instead to hard cold words of separation, as though identities, like words, had only one meaning or value.

Social media has allowed an ugliness to flourish by enabling singular and often toxic views to find each other and feed on the cancer of anger and intolerance. Newspapers and broadcast news programs have abandoned even the pretence of impartiality that was once the hallmark of great journalism, so that partisans can bathe in the narrow views they crave, without ever glimpsing the other side. It is the antithesis of knowledge and enlightenment.

As Pope Francis told a gathering of Italian journalists, “Communication needs real words in the midst of so many empty words … stories can create the space for freedom or for slavery, for responsibility or addiction to power.” And on a sobering note he implored them: “Don’t be afraid to turn the news upside down, to give voice to the voiceless.” Because words matter.

Is this why, even as a teenager, I read the section on the Tower of Babel the way some might read Harry Potter, with a sense of wonder and discovery. I read the words with the heartbreak of familiarity, understanding the meaning of separation and divide. The Bible begins with the Word, and with a “whole Earth” that has “one language and the same words,” but so soon after is met with separation and confusion: “It was called Babel because there the Lord confused the language of all the Earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of the Earth” (Genesis 11:9).

Even if I had not been naturally predisposed to my faith life, I would have been — was — drawn to the Bible by its revelation that God was language: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). For someone who understood instinctively, before I could ever grasp it intellectually, that language was a gift to be shared and valued, I knew that the Bible held a sacred, incontrovertible, promise. A covenant, if you will.

But a covenant is a contract, not a lagniappe. It asks that we perform something in return for grace. It asks us to love our neighbour; it asks us not to judge even if we find the other different, or challenging, or frightening. We are asked to commit to understanding, not to unbending rules, so that we might heal and find each other in the babble of miscommunication.

The question is and will always be: Will we hear the call, and hearing it, will we understand?

(Turcotte is president of St. Mary’s University in Calgary.)

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