Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Hills Are Alive with the Sound of Words

Words sneak into your awareness and hunker down like squatters in abandoned houses. They are as devious as visiting relatives, persistent as commission sales reps in big box stores, urging you to try things you have no intention of ever owning, assuring you how useful they are, hinting that if you order now, you'll also get steak knives thrown in for free.


Words flutter about like a mob of hungry pigeons, alert for targets of opportunity. They pout, strut, dart, the brave among them taking risks that amuse and annoy us. Some words, well known for their interior music, are as buskers or street-corner performers, suggesting the activity inherent in their name. You have only to see a word such as buzz or its cousin, buzzing before a picture of a bee or a band saw or some form of attention-getting mechanism arrives. When buzz is used as an adjective, as in buzz words, even then it is fecund with exoskeleton thanks to its meaning of special vocabulary for a particularized discipline. As a verb, buzz works well, signifying some device set in action to signal an arrival or a call for attention. I'll buzz you in. The buzzer clamored for his attention.

When you see or hear the word susurrous, you are transported with immediacy to the whisper of a stream over a bed of rocks or the secretive conversation among a throng of doves; not to mention the fun of conflating the word with the imaginative name for a Japanese-made auto. The word used to describe this sound of meaning quality, onomatopoeia, conveys an Oriental sense of mystery, revealed only by the chanting of a mantra to unlock the linguistic door.

However sensual the sound of susurrous, another word from the S family, squeamish, embeds the sensors that trigger a feeling verging upon another S-word yet, stomach, in a turmoil of discomfort.

Tuna, by itself, is not particularly humorous, nor is sandwich, but the mere thought of conjoining the two to produce tuna sandwich sends a grin of near mystical mischief to appear, a love note from your secret place of meaning. Try repeating the phrase tuna sandwich a few times without cracking a smile.

Words can do that to you, transport you, change your mood, inspire you, even frighten you. Edgar Allen Poe spent some considerable time deliberating over word choice, intent on conveying a mounting atmosphere of terror, aware of the effectiveness each word bore as he erected the pyramids and sphinxes of the bizarre and enigmatic. He may not have succeeded in frightening you as, say, his later-day acolyte, Steven King, has done, but Poe has left you a legacy, the receipt of which is to make you suspicious, wary, uneasy.

Spectacular is a word you use from time to time as a way to describe certain friends, male or female; it has become a useful term because of the way the merest phrasing of the word in your mind suggests the bodacious, good-cheer presence of the individual.

Your earlier mention of the word mantra, the mystical pattern of words used in mysticism-based meditation. Mantras often contain the word from Hindu prayer, Om, or Aum, which itself is an exhortation and invocation; they also contain Sanskrit designer words called Bija words, usually a conflation of the qualities of a particular god or goddess. These Bija words are quintessential buzzwords, intended as meditational tools to help the spiritual aspirant observe then experience the very qualities inherent in the words.

There are also cooking- and food-related words such as succulent or esculent, or perhaps even savory, their very mention likely to provoke images of curries and gumbos, of posole and menudo, causing you to slather as you consider.

Words have the power to turn you inside out, to arouse, mollify, enrage, enchant, engage you. The musician is guardian of her instrument, the chef protector of his knives, the hunter of his weaponry. The writer's tool is the kit of words, the possessive vocabulary he or she might own, with newer, more modern tools as much on the wish list as the iPhone on the modern person's wish list


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