Word Of The Week: February 13th, 2010.

gammaThere was a guy who sat behind me in high school World History. We talked a lot, mostly before class, sometimes during class. Well, mostly he talked and I listened. I was somewhat in awe of him. He was an über-cool goth guy who, even though he was my age, had done things I couldn’t imagine. He could play seven different instruments and had performed on stage. He’d travelled across the country with a couple of friends. He also told me about run-ins with mall security guards, and being locked out by his parents when he came home too late. He spoke to me as an equal even though I, shy geek that I was, felt intimidated by him. I never would have spoken to him at all if he hadn’t talked to me first. He simply said, “What’s your name?” I told him. He nodded and said, “Chris. That’s a damn fine name. It’s mine too.” We managed to make some connection. I lent him Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos, he lent me Clive Barker’s Books of Blood. We were both fans of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, although I don’t think we were ever at the same midnight showing. And I was relieved because I wasn’t sure if he’d even acknowledge me if we met outside of class. The last day of class I said goodbye to him. He stopped me and said, “See you later. The word ‘goodbye’ isn’t in my vocabulary.”

It took me completely by surprise. It wasn’t just that maybe he thought more of me than I realized. The concept of a word not being in someone’s vocabulary—of permanently removing a word to avoid the concept. I’d read 1984 and had thought about how words could be used to control people, to control thought. The whole idea of Newspeak, after all, was to reduce the words in the language. Dismissing the word goodbye from one’s vocabulary, though, seemed like a positive thing.

Most people probably never think about it but the word goodbye does have a sad finality to it. The French “au revoir” means “until we meet again”, and so does the German “auf wiedersehen”. The Spanish “adios” means “to God”, which seems like a frightening way to say goodbye to someone. I think “hasta luego” is preferable. In Russian the common way of saying “goodbye” is “do svidaniya”, which also means “until we meet again”. There is a less commonly used word in Russian, “proschaia”, which is a way of saying goodbye to someone you’re never going to see again.

It’s strange that English we so commonly say “goodbye” without thinking about the finality the word implies. When Chris told me the word wasn’t in his vocabulary it was, fittingly, the last thing he said to me, but we may meet again. If we do, when we part I’ll say, “See you later.”

4 thoughts on “Word Of The Week: February 13th, 2010.

  1. A linguist once explained to me that “y’all” makes up for a glaring defect in the English language–the absence of a plural second person word. “See you later” may perform a similar function, then.

    1984 affected the way I saw language, too. If you eliminate a word, you also eliminate a concept. This is why I pay attention to the terms that would-be leaders of various stripes use.

  2. You’re right–eliminating a word does eliminate the concept. It’s a scary thing.

    And I love the word “y’all” for being that second person plural word that English lacks. It makes much more sense than “youse” which you sometimes hear Yankees use. Although Yankees have never figured out how to use “y’all” correctly–they all seem to think it’s for addressing just one person.

  3. I’m not sure I agree that eliminating a word eliminates a concept. Language grows out of a need for a way to express something, not the other way around. So just because there isn’t a word for something doesn’t mean that thing will cease to exist. Likely, people would simply create a new word for it. (Although in the world of 1984 they’re probably smart enough not to say it aloud.)

    Think about a time when you’ve struggled to find the right word for something you were talking about. Even though you didn’t know the word for it, you still knew what you wanted to express – just not an easy way to say it.

  4. It’s a confusing thing because, while language does grow out of a need to express a concept, it also, to some degree, shapes our perception. The linguist Benjamin Whorf wrote about how the Hopi had a very different perception of the concept of time that seemed to be shaped by their language.

    In Orwell’s Newspeak one of the words that was removed was “revolution”, with the idea that people wouldn’t be able to have a revolution if they lacked the word for it. Now I’d lay money that there were revolutions before there was a word for it, but I think it must have been hard to grasp the concept and hard to express it without a word for it.

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