Caring for Words, II: Quantum Uncertainty

Words, like quantum particles, will not be pinned down. However meticulously you fix them in the arc of a sentence, they quiver and jump the moment you turn away. They’re fickle and unruly even when you care what – and how – they mean. It’s this quantum uncertainty that makes metaphor at once surprising and fitting, as long as one maintains, in the words of Wendell Berry, “…a humorous intelligence, always mindful of the exact limits in within which the comparison is meaningful.”[1] Those who imagine they can make a word mean whatever they choose, thinking it will caper to a tune like a trained monkey, are wounding the language and undermining their audience’s trust. However strange it may seem, for some that’s precisely the goal.

“Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still. Shrieking voices
Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering,
Always assail them. The Word in the desert
Is most attacked by voices of temptation,
The crying shadow in the funeral dance,
The loud lament of the disconsolate chimera.”

  • -T S Eliot, Burnt Norton V, Four Quartets

“”I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory’,” Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t- till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!'”

“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean- neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master-that’s all.”

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything; so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. “They’ve a temper some of them- particularly verbs: they’re the proudest- adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs- however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!”

  • Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

“To see evil and call it good, mocks God. Worse, it makes goodness meaningless. A word without meaning is an abomination, for when the word passes beyond understanding the very thing the word stands for passes out of the world and cannot be recalled.”

  • Stephen R. Lawhead, Arthur

[1] Wendell Berry, “Health is Membership”

Image: Illustration of Humpty Dumpty from Through the Looking Glass, by John Tenniel, 1871. (Public Domain)

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