What’s In a Word?

Lisa_JensenSo, there I was, loping through the San Francisco Chronicle last week. (We may surf the web, but a more laid-back and contemplative verb is required for perusing a newspaper in print) and there I found the article, “Book lovers turn the page on a new year,” about Bay Area calligrapher Georgianna Greenwood. Early in January every year, she hosts a ceremony at the Center for the Book in San Francisco; eschewing the whole notion of New Year’s resolutions, she invites participants to choose a single word to express their attitude toward the coming year—hopes, dreams,  strategies, goals, coping mechanisms, whatever—and then draws or collages together a “talisman” to celebrate that idea. But the core is that word, one single word to express one’s personal Zeitgeist for the new year.

As a writer, I was smitten with this challenge. “I can do that!” I gloated in my heedless zeal. Words are my beat. Surely I could find just the right one to express, well, everything.

Right off, I was reminded of Albus Dumbledore in the first Harry Potter book. “I would like to say a few words,” he tells the assembly of incoming Hogwarts students. “Nitwit. Blubber. Oddment. Tweak. Thank you.”

OK, it’s an old joke, but I have my favorite words too, words I just can’t get enough of, and employ at any possible opportunity, just for the fun of bandying them about. Specious. Festive. Amok. Scintilescent. Some of them give my poor Spellcheck fits, since they are often archaic, or, ahem, made-up. (I was about to add “muchness” to this group, recently welcomed into my vocabulary via last year’s Alice in Wonderland movie —”too much muchness,” I scold myself, editing the early drafts of my film reviews—until I consulted my Webster’s to learn it’s been around since the 14th Century. D’oh!)

Anyway, it doesn’t matter to me if the words I use are technically real or not, as long as the point is conveyed. As the Red Queen proclaims in the second Alice book, “When I use a word, it means exactly what I choose it to mean. No more, no less.” Here, here.

In the beginning, we’re told, there was The Word. “Bird” was the Word in 1963, when The Rivingtons needed a suitably nonsensical follow-up to “Papa Ooh Mow Mow.” The Beatles told us to “say the Word, love.” (“It’s so fine/ Sunshine …”) In The Graduate, the word was “Plastics.” In the ’70s, the Bee Gees sang, “Grease is the Word.” But how to choose one from this multitude of verbiage as my shield, prayer and talisman for the new year?

What’s in a word, anyway?

“A rose is a rose is a rose,” Gertrude Stein nods sagely, from the comfy armchair in her atelier. To which Will Shakespeare, wiping the greasepaint from his palms, chimes in, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” But as a professional wordsmith myself, I have to believe that individual words matter. My job is to select the perfectly ripe and succulent one, not too green—a word whose meaning might not yet be fully formed—nor so mellow that it’s lost its verve and texture.

Unfotrunately, I’m the kind of writer who likes to just lob a lot of verbiage (see—there’s another one of my faves) at the screen in hopes that somehow the right one will stick. After that, it’s just a process of peeling away the excess to find it. But whatever method you prefer, nine times out of 10, choosing the right word is both critical and near impossible (especially on deadline) to any lowly scribe attempting to communicate an idea—and that’s just in everyday writing, like emails, or press releases, or movie reviews. How much more formidable a task must it be to seize on the exact mot juste to carry a message to the Universe? What could it possibly be, a single word to conjure up the right juju, the alchemy, the fortitude needed to both define and navigate an entire year?

A thousand lofty candidates spring to mind. What about peace? Love? Hope? Courage? These are noble ideals all, desperately needed in our damaged, divided world. But as words, they’ve become greeting-card doggerel, neutered by overuse, however profound their meaning. Health? Happiness? Tolerance? Sanity? Hmmm, getting closer, but each is just a bit too general to serve as someone’s personal mantra.

Since looking backward and looking forward are part of the same double-sided, Janus-headed coin, I decided to consult a recent diary entry I wrote bidding adios to 2010. It was a bittersweet year for me. I not only lost my mom, but a favorite family cousin as well, along with a girlfriend who’d been one of my best buddies in high school. I called it the year of letting go.

And that’s when it came to me. If last year was for goodbyes, this should be my year for Life. Both finite and infinite; life in all its messy complexity, the life I have and the life I still want to make of it. One simple, non-fussy word that’s full of possibilities. Life. Embrace it. Live it. Use it well.

This is my alchemical word for the new year. What’s yours?

Spread the Word and be like [email protected] Read Lisa’s blog on Santa Cruz arts and letters at ljo-express.blogspot.com)

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