What’s in a word?

Words lift the burden of meaning and with meaning comes thought and understanding and misnomer, but always perspective. Words are but symbols until experience gives a word a life. And then there is us, a complicated compilation of cells wishing we could come up with the right word, and too often, stricken with silence, we fall short.  

The spoken word carries sounds, inflections, intonations and shades accompanied by body language enunciating and exclaiming, and as if the word itself is not enough, the silent, nuanced space between them screams. Conversations leave us either broadened or confused or surprised by a word’s universality. And within that sanctuary we call language are the intentions and emotions and vibrations accompanying those meanings we wish to express while sometimes not and sometimes—yes. 

There is also the unspoken word—the cutting of the eyes, the gesture, the considered effort on behalf of someone, the stumbles and stammers—and each sign tells its tale. And when we lack commonality of definition, we are left with guesses and consolations and discernments risking failure and success. Sometimes no words are needed, just a wink or a nod or a look. 

But words are what we have and through them life’s undercurrents seek a place on the surface. When all seems murky and blurry, words may lift us into revelation or deepen the mystery. They offer insight and wisdom and truth but can and do hurt. Words speak, but what do they mean? 

Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged, it is the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and the time in which it is used.”  

By the writer, poet, philosopher, theologian or the simple observer, words become stories and libraries and ride through history into our consciousness. Words are to our soul what air is to our body, carried on by the simple question—did you hear what happened? 

This must have been the murmurings and whispers the townspeople and bystanders uttered upon the return of the prodigal son. “Too lenient a father,” one said. “How could a son be so disrespectful?” said another. “A fatted calf, really. Isn’t that a bit much?” said one more. “Why, he never did half as much for his oldest son.” “You know, I always thought that family was a little strange.” “See what happens when you give a child everything he wants. I knew he would turn out to be worthless.” 

But isn’t it true somewhere in the 783,187 words in the Bible, its message captured in this simple story about a wayward son, between the words and in their meaning, somewhere between the father and the elder son and the extravagant one, we can see ourselves or at least our quiet, secret desires?  

Did you hear what happened? 

“Those who have ears to hear, let them hear” (Matthew 11:15, NKJV). 

Or is it those who have words? 

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