Crouching Meaning, Hidden Meaning

Some years ago, a friend of mine, a native speaker of Japanese, was frustrated after a tough English test, and he said, “In Japanese, words just mean what the dictionary says they mean. In English, you always have to use your imagination.”

I thought that observation was so true — and so (unintentionally) laudatory of the English language — that I wrote it down. Probably every writer in the world would say this about his/her own mother tongue, but it seems to me that English is simply made for art. There are so many possibilities for expression — as painters-with-words, we have palettes that are miles-wide. In English poetry, a single word can resonate with two, three, or four different meanings at once, maybe more.

As a native English speaker, I’m forever applying imagination to my communication in Japanese when I don’t know the right word for something, and it either draws blank stares or cases of rolling-on-the-floor-laughing-out-loud. Once I was trying to express “turtleneck sweater,” and I had no idea what it was called in Japanese, so I said it literally — and boy, did people laugh! In English, our names for many objects tend to be descriptions of those objects made from combinations of words (phone + book = phonebook). But in Japanese, there’s much more often one specific word for every single concept. (You have to learn the word for “phonebook” — you can’t get by with combining “phone” and “book.”) Another time, I said, literally, in Japanese “chicken sandwich” — and people rolled on the floor again, because they pictured a clucking, full-feathered chicken thrashing between two pieces of bread. The special word for it in Japanese is, very specifically, “chicken-meat sandwich” — which gets no laughter at all.

But anyway, we live in this glorious language in which a word can have more scintillating facets than a jewel. Here’s an illustration from my book Dragonfly (hey, this is a blog, okay? — people expect you to talk about yourself!): the Untowards are teams of just-barely-domesticated (or maybe not) goat-like creatures. As large as horses, the Untowards are highly intelligent, wild as Faery, and when they’re hitched to a wagon, they buck and scramble and dance. Surging, rebounding off each other and off whatever may crop up along the roadside, they seem determined to tear the harness and the wagon into pieces and careen away in opposite directions. Yet somehow, they end up together at the journey’s end, with the wagon (usually) still intact. They’re called Untowards because, 1.) they’re difficult to guide, manage, or work with, as expressed by the English word “untoward”; 2.) a second meaning of “untoward” is marked by trouble or unhappiness; unlucky; not favorable; unpropitious — as reflective of the feelings any sane person might have when boarding a wagon about to be dragged away into the night by Untowards; 3.) they seem not to be heading in the right direction at all, and not interested in doing so: “un-toward” — not at all toward; 4.) but ultimately, they ward you unto your destination — they are “unto-wards.”

Thanks, folks! You’ve been great! I’ll be here all week.

Okay, here’s a more recent example that most people haven’t heard. In The Fires of the Deep (the book set in the dark underground world), a village is called a “paling.” There’s Lodin Umbir Paling, Sand Paling, Bridgend Paling, Dunsan Paling, Lost Echo Paling . . . you get the idea. That’s a purposefully-chosen word that indicates the Hurlim people’s relationship with their vast, lightless, silent, largely empty environment. In the subterranean realm, the darkness — or rather, the obscurity, since there is no light, and hence no “darkness” — is absolute and ubiquitous. It’s called Lachii, which means everything beyond what you can see; it is synonymous with “infinity” and “eternity.” The sea which has no farther side known to mortals is the Vooren Lachii.

Anyway — where people gather and live, there is a tiny, tiny circle of sound and motion in the Lachii — a “paling of the darkness,” in a light/dark analogy: only a paling or dimming of the dark, because the dark doesn’t go away; the dark is supreme. But people, in their little communities of warmth and activity, temporarily push the darkness back a little.

“Paling” also has the meaning of a stake or post, and by extension, a fence or perimeter you might build out of such stakes. Again, a good name for a community in the Hurlim world — a place where humans have staked out a small plot of ground.

Finally, “pale” has the meaning of a zone of influence — and so, in this story, a place where people exert a bit of control, for a time, over the eternal Lachii.

Okay, one final example, from a poem of mine written years ago, titled “I Am Looking at Lilacs”: in one pair of lines, I talked about “Traveling fernwise / The whispering hedge.” Fernwise can mean both “in the direction of ferns,” as in “clockwise” — and “with a knowledge of ferns, a wisdom born of ferns,” as in “streetwise.”

So — this could be the springboard for a great list. Has anyone else got good examples? No, no, they don’t have to be from my oeuvre! They might be from your own, or from the vast world of stories out there. Can you think of a wording that has stuck with you, an instance of a writer using a word to do amazing double- or triple-duty?

Words are fun, and they can wear many hats. We live in this language that always forces us to use our imaginations.

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5 Responses to “Crouching Meaning, Hidden Meaning”

  1. Marquee Movies Says:

    You’re welcome. Very cool title, by the way.

  2. fsdthreshold Says:

    Heh, heh! Thank you. And thank you.
    Everyone else: if you look back and forth between these two comments really fast, you can begin to imagine after awhile that the “thank you” comes before the “you’re welcome.”
    –brought to you by the Society of Enthusiasts for Optical Illusions in Blog Comments (SEOIBC)

  3. Tandemcat Says:

    I have two thoughts about this. One is what one of the Queens says in _Alice in Wonderland_, that a word means exactly what she says it means. The other is a true story that happened to a big, tall, strapping new missionary and his wife. They were eating in a restaurant in a Spanish-speaking country, and his wife thought she would show off her newfound knowledge of Spanish to the waiter. Beaming at him, she said, “¡Yo tengo mucho hombre!” The waiter looked at her, grinned broadly, and said, “¡Si, Señora! ¡Si!”. What she said was: “I have much man!”; what she meant to say was: “¡Yo tengo mucha hambre!”–“I have much hunger!”.

  4. Catherine Says:

    As a student of Spanish, I must say that I appreciated the last comment…:)

    Speaking of languages, Chinese is especially rife with double meanings, because it is a tonal language. A word can be exactly the same in everything but tone, but it completely looses its meaning if you say it high instead of low, or vice-versa…or forget to say it flat…

    That said, one day when I was pursuing my ill-fated study of Cantonese (the dialect spoken in Hong Kong and the surrounding area), my teacher said: “Okay, you’ve learned how to count and you’ve learned the word for peach. Please count peaches in Cantonese.”

    That was easy enough, so I smiled broadly and began. “Yaht go tou,” I said, saying “tou” in a low tone, ending it like you would an emphatic sentence. “Yee go tou. Sahm go tou. Say go…”

    “Uh…” the teacher began. “Stop, please.” She was having a hard time controlling her laughter. “You weren’t counting peaches, you were counting stomachs!” To say “peach”, you have to say the word like you would say “Huh?”, really dramatic and dragging out.

    Unfortunately, I can’t think of any poetic connection between peaches and stomachs…though I can think of a practical one…

  5. Shelley Says:

    I can’t think of any I have come up with myself right now. But I thought of two things. The first is the Gaelic word “deosil” which means “sunwise.” In order to get into Faerie you had to make 3 sunwise circles. Sunwise means counter-clockwise (if you’re facing north) or clockwise (if you’re facing south) and people disagree which is the real one. Another word for counter-clockwise is ‘widdershins’. Fun word. Fernwise, sunwise, clockwise…where does “wise” come from anyway?
    Also I have to pay a tribute to Gerard Manley Hopkins, the king of double and triple duty words…

    The Windhover:
    To Christ Our Lord

    I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
    dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
    Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
    High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
    In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
    As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend the hurl and gliding
    Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
    Stirred for a bird — the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

    Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
    Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
    Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

    No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
    Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
    Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

    Gerard Manley Hopkins

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