Uniforms for Thoughts

THE little boy next door is calling to his mother. He is saying ‘Moth-aar, Moth-aar,’over and over, apparently to unhearing ears. I know that he wants something very special or else is in a tender mood, because ordinarily he says ‘Mother,’or even a conventional ‘Mama.’ On the other hand, when he is called in unwilling from absorbing outdoor occupations, I can easily guess the mood of his response when to a ‘Hen-ry!’ from the window he returns an impatient ‘What-tee!' When he is feeling merely masculine and independent he retorts a brief and businesslike ‘What?’ Or, since he has begun to play with the other boys a little, ‘Wut?’ Henry’s manners in response are very imperfect. When he is entirely goodnatured and is intending to come in a minute anyway, or when the call seems to hold a promise instead of a bare command, he says ‘ What-ty’ in a tone of pleasant repartee and trots in.

Henry probably thinks that he is solving normally a problem which even thus young he has met — the problem of saying completely what he wants to say, with the resources at hand. Little does he yet know of the unadaptability and insufficiency of language! He thinks he controls his speech and makes a word say what he wants it to, like his friend Humpty-Dumpty. In his infantile assertiveness he sees himself a despot of words. There is ‘what,’the most prosaic of words, meaningless as a paving-brick. But does Henry wish to express pleasantry or easy familiarity, he achieves it lightly by adding a diminutive. Does he want, to embody impatience of feminine control and haughty assertion of right, he adds an emphatic ee or breaks the word in the middle into an impudent ‘wha-at.'

The tyranny and inflexibility of language have not yet irked him. A word is an obedient thing which in his mouth takes the shape he wishes and on his lips must say the thing he would say. He is a very monarch among words. When he says one he means what he thinks. He is at the stage of egotism of childhood, when his own will and himself are half of what he sees. So far as he yet knows, the whole world is malleable, flexible to his will. As soon as he can lay hands on it he intends to manipulate it, as he does his words. These he is acquiring daily, each one an asset. I can guess from the frequency of their appearance, as they float to my window, which one is the newest. Yesterday it was ‘gawky.’ I heard him say it a dozen times, in all degrees of inaptness — some unrecognizable charm in the clumsy word having taken him. Another new word will come the next day and the next — the resources the world is opening to him are endless. And he thinks that words are commensurate with ideas.

No one has yet told him that the big morocco-bound volume on the stand among the bookcases contains all,the words he is ever likely to know and more, and that other men have already determined his vocabulary for him. The whole limit of his transferable ideas is defined on those pages. All his means of expression are already laid out for him, and he can never say what is not provided for there. Does he have a rebellious though dim forecast of this when he says ‘wha-at’ or ‘what-ty’?

Henry cannot yet know what a box of limitations he has been bom into, or that its rigidity is to be continuous. There is no force stronger than language — unless it be mere convenience — to keep man in the paths of uniformity or likeness. He may do things which no man before him thought of doing, but he can never, after he reaches the stage of complete articulateness, make use of a word absolutely his own, one which does not bear the mind and creation of other men. And not only the word but the relations of the word, its inflections and its syntax, its external and internal relations, are all fixed already in the habit of other speech-makers. If anything in the world should be a man’s own, it is surely that by which he himself speaks. But the form of his phrase, the order of his words, even the rhythm of his voice and the tune of his sentence, are all racially determined for him generations before he opens his mouth in speech. The sound by which he says ‘music’ may not naturally express music to him at all; and the sound by which he says ‘love’ or ‘hate’ may not be any natural voicing of love or hate. Many times he will thumb dictionary or gloss or thesaurus to find a word to say his idea, and discover that the word does not exist, because no man before him has needed it. But he will use the words of other men and in the end cease to question or rebel. When he wishes to say the most intimate, most personal thing, the thing most his own, he must do so in a phrase which would have been chosen as well by a stranger to him, by a man unlike him in any way. When he wishes a term of endearment he must use one which has served millions before him — and his feeling will be different in grade and degree, he will think, from what all the others have felt.

For everyone in the world a worse limitation is added to that. Not only is your whole language handed to you at your birth along with your race and your parentage, but your expression in any moment of speechusing is largely determined for you. It is not merely yourself, but the man you speak to, who in the end chooses your words. For you cannot communicate anything to him except in words he knows and understands. When you use a novel word you leave, for him, a blank in your sentence. He finds an unknown locution for your predicate, and for him the whole sentence fades away. Yet you had every wish to say that thing to him, and he could understand your thought if he knew your phrase. Henry thinks he is choosing his words out of a limitless well, but every man he meets will help to put a limit on his source.

There is an unfairness in it. We furnish ourselves with what should be legal tender and then find that no one is obliged to accept it at our offering. And there is a worse thing than that, which is that others can and do deplete and damage the exchange value of our hoardings. Word after word slips away from us, or we are made to use it shamefacedly, stealthily, because of the mal-aroma it has acquired in the speech of others. Do you easily say ‘refined’ now without a semblance of consciousness? With what meaning and in what tone do you speak of ‘culture’? How long is it since you have used ‘genteel’ with any seriousness ? And yet it is not so long since ‘genteel female’ was a term of compliment, a form of praise which pleased genteel females. ‘Elegant’ and ‘cultivated ‘ are slipping or slinking gently from you along the same path. In another quarter-century the use of them may be a sign of affectation. And yet each of these words, not so very long ago, wrapped up an ideal by no means unworthy. Insincere and uninstructed handling has robbed them of their fineness. The more exquisite a word is initially, the more tawdry and draggled it becomes when misused and ill-applied. You cannot use honorably a term which has become a hireling of ideas less fine or less honest than yours.

Thus one phrase after another is stolen from you, and you must acquiesce.

Bright is the ring of words,
When the right man rings them.

Bright is the ring, indeed — when the honest man rings them. But how quickly the tone loses its clearness when the great body of slack or indistinct writers and speakers strike it. Before our very eyes we see a fine word losing its definition. What a good figure ‘gesture’ was when it moved into current writing! Now where is the penny-a-liner in Grub Street who can get through his column without it? Where is the Slope or the Mr. Collins who can finish his pulpit half-hour without ‘challenge’? A good word that, but it has lost its ring.

Scientific or semiscientific terms should be above such warping, but they are not. The eternal sophomore has laid hold of ‘moron,’ of ‘complex,’ of ‘psychological,’ and the scientist is fain to look aside when he hears them. Some men want words for their speech; others are content with baskets — loosely woven and leaky ones at that.

Uniforms for thoughts we have. If we are not alert and wary we fall into triteness and conformity, using phrases and whole sentences that are trade-manufactured. It looks like a proof of abject conventionality and similarity in ourselves and our thought-processes that we submit naturally and mechanically to such likeness of phrase. Perhaps it is not more curious than our similarity of dress, of house, of habit. And yet that is but a matter of convenience, while a man’s speech is himself. His thought and feeling are all he really has. How can he bear to put them into the phrases used as public carriers — characterless as seats in a railway-train, adapted to everyone and to no one? A man brings himself hardly to the wearing of secondhand clothing, even of a rented garment. But he clothes his thoughts — of whatever fineness he may attain, or preciousness to him, or seriousness — in old secondhand phrases, faded and dulled, mouthed by thousands before him. Nothing is more repulsively pathetic, more a summary of the humiliation of poverty, than the sight of one buying old shoes — things shaped already to other feet, worn to their type, having done their errands and gone on their journeys and borne their loads. How can his feet wear them? How do one’s thoughts fit to the long-used clothing of other thoughts or the common phrase of the multitude?

But there is a converse to this. There are times when one is impatient with the snobbishness which is zealous to discard a term when some undesirability in its actual meaning has come to be recognized too completely. Strangely, it is in practical matters that such snobbishness appears chiefly. Just when we are well used to a serviceable term it is whisked away, and another offered which, it is hoped, will render the notion involved more respectable and less a thing to be concealed. ‘Secondhand’ becomes ‘used,’ to save the feelings of one who can be only a second owner; ‘cheap’ turns to ‘less expensive ‘ as one takes her thrifty purposes down to basement buyingregions; and the less expensive hotel becomes ‘unpretentious’ in the guidebook. Every verbal effort is used to make the path of the saver respectable and to have it seem one of choice rather than necessity.

The euphemist is an apologist always. He may be making an apology for you to save your feelings, as when he offers you a used car instead of a secondhand one, or clothes your necessities in the language of desire. But commonly the euphemist apologizes for himself or for what pertains to him. He acknowledges much, in his seeking for attractiveness of phrase. Subtle deductions are to be made from his niceness. It is a constant puzzle to one looking abroad on the present branches and forms of education, for example, that so much euphemistic terminology is necessary. The constant rechristening is bewildering to the outsider. Grammar, for instance, ousted from its once honorable place, tries to sneak into a curriculum with all concealment possible as ‘practical English.’ Chemistry has been chemistry ever since it ceased to be alchemy, and physiology is physiology; but onetime elocution, of multisonous memory, passed into ‘expression’ and then into ‘speech arts,’ and no man knows what it will yet be. Didactics became ‘pedagogy’ and no one objected; but pedagogy became ‘education,’ if you please, to the establishing of eternal ambiguity. Cooking, a valuable combination of science and skill, no sooner got itself a place in curricula than it scurried shamefacedly into ‘application of heat to food products.’ In our so-called practical education, Mr. Yellowplush seems to occupy a pedagogical chair.

But it is not in pedagogy alone that man is found desiring unwarranted attractiveness of phrase. He has always sought a sweeter name for a spade; and in doing so he has sometimes deceived himself or others into conceiving that it has some charm of form or æsthetic purpose, or is to be used from choice and not from necessity. But after all everyone has moments of knowing that it is used for turning earth and is commonly dirty and frequently needs scouring. It is the courageous ones whose words never suffer discounting.

Behind language our minds move, but it is often merely the veil of expression. We see each other through it and get a dim semblance of thought rather than the thought itself. We are always hoping to puncture the veil with a new-found word, or with one coined urgently, impatiently. But the next time we want to use it we find it limited, closely defined, or else spread out to be commensurate with past uses. We are helpless, not knowing whether another ever gets our meaning exactly or not. It is as if each man had his own kind of money, all legal tender, but with scales of value that cannot be reconciled. The marketing of the world would be sadly hampered in such a case; the exchange of thought is.

‘The magic of the necessary word,’ one said in a fine phrase. It is a rare magic, truly. But when will that again be the necessary word? Or when necessity arises will there be a word to meet it? When you say ‘blue,’ how many who hear you see the same color you do? When you say ‘beauty,’ their responding ideas are miles apart. When men say ‘goodness,’ one means benevolence, and one means goodnature, and one means not breaking the law, and one means righteousness before the Lord; and one means something different from all these. All our speech is only an approximation, and an approximation determined by two elements which no man can measure. We speak darkly, dissatisfying to ourselves and dim to others. ‘All words are juggles,’ said speculative Samuel Butler.

The higher we go in the scale of ideas the more uncertain we are of understanding or of being understood. Even the Christian world — or especially the Christian world — has been in a mell always because minds do not meet on religious phrases. At the best we can hardly tell whether we are agreeing or differing, whatever we think. Do any two understand the same by a religious phrase, even the commonest? Our fathers made Heaven and Hell concrete and momentous, since they could so be sure of understanding one another in that much at least. Through all time bodies of people have met together in worship, thinking their worship the same because they subscribed to the same terminology. But who could say what that terminology meant to each one? A thousand men call a Bible ‘the word of God’ — and what does each one mean? What of ‘salvation,’ of the ‘Holy Spirit,’ even of ‘God’ — or of scores of terms of doctrine which sound exact but are interpreted by the users according to their own mental capacity and tradition and imagination and egoism? ‘Communications between God and man,’ said Butler again, ‘must always be above words or below them; for with words come in translations. . . .’

The large area of content possible for a religious phrase is responsible for the brotherly agreements in faith no less than for the bloody disagreements. Could we have had mathematical exactness of terminology for the last two thousand years, the history of the Church would have been very different. There might have been more or fewer holy wars, or more or less persecution, but the occasions would have been other than they were. Lion and lamb sometimes lie down together because, in the list of words in which their faiths exist, they do not discern their differences. Or, in another pasture, lion is tearing lion and lamb rending lamb because they do not recognize their own beliefs when they hear them expressed in unfamiliar forms. If in the end we reach a place of absolute accuracy and precision, when religious terms are as definite as ellipse and parabola, what a reassorting of sects there will be! Trinitarian and Unitarian, Calvinist and Arminian, Romanist and Anglican, will be classified according to their own definition — and how astonished some will be at the bin in which they find themselves!

But, on the other hand, how a man’s thoughts may be bound by his locutions — how they can keep his theses from growing! A man is impoverished by his finished phrases. Certain terms have been handed down to him, or acquired by him when he first acquired ideas, and have served to define those ideas ever since. If he were required, every time he referred to them, to do so in new phrases, how hard he would find it to define them thus — but how those ideas might expand! The best thing that could happen to the wordbound man would be to have a limited aphasia suddenly sweep away his whole set of phrases. He has had his special outfit of eternal verities as well as his temporal pragmatics tied up neatly and unchangeably in finished and satisfactory phrases. His ideas have no penumbra, no nebulous edge, no ragged fringe, — advantageous, certainly, — and no future. They have been put once for all into a suit that allows not for growth and has been sewed up and buttoned up for all time.

It would be a valuable exercise for one to require himself for a day or for a week to avoid every fixed familiar wording and to say everything, even the most commonplace statement, in a new way. There would be practical loss, doubtless, but what gain in truthfulness! Useful mental activity would be involved. And how old ideas would take on new freshness and new light, and ideas which had been masquerading as new show themselves to be merely old ones, and others vanish into nothing when no longer stayed by a good stiff phrase!

What a pleasant thing it would be to waylay a speaker we have just been listening to —a preacher or lecturer or propagandist of some sort — and require him to redeliver his address all in new wording! Think of the case of the sermon-maker, possibly, with all the long-repeated, time-solidified phrases which he, perhaps, brought from his seminary with him, and has been using ever since. How it would tax his intelligence, and recrystallize his belief, and strain his energies, to define his long-familiar theses in any but long-familiar combinations of words! Perhaps he would also bring himself to a new stage of genuineness in belief. The teacher deprived of his phrases — bane of banes in teaching — might come to a new acquaintance with his subject.

The genuine scientist can set forth his theory in as many ways as are necessary for your understanding; but too often the religionist, the proprietor of new thought, the forwarder of a cult, dins your ears with his catchwords, which he never defines or replaces with others. The campaigner, evangelist, and politician set pathetic faith in a slogan, thinking that without it they cannot win money or souls or votes; and in fact it is rejected by the ears of the thinking man, who waits for a real definition. ‘Let me make the slogan of my party,’ they seem to say, ‘ and I care not who makes its platform.’

No wonder Henry tries to make words his own, taking the sound that has been given him and fitting it to his little mind and purposes. He is born to so many things which he never had a chance to choose for himself — houses and clothes and customs and occupations. He may submit to them, or he may rebel always and excite wonder at his recalcitrance. But language — already he is meeting the problem of its domination. He shows great promise to be an individualist, for he is trying instinctively to master it before it masters him. It is not simply vocabulary that is given him, mere glosses to limit him, but congealed phrases which can never again be flexible, dead metaphors, mere carcasses of ancient fancies, syntax from which spirit and even logic have gone, compounds once rich in imagination and now only an economy of sound — things which will warp his thought instead of expressing it. With all the beauty and clarity which come to him in part of his inheritance, he must accept clumsy opacities also, to do with them what he can. Will he always be able to discard them, or among them all to keep his need for truth?

Through all his utterance — of fact or thought or emotion — he will chafe constantly against his steady problem — to make the language of all speak the mind of the one. Can he continue to revere his own thoughts of greatness or to feel sweet enthusiasm for them when they sink to platitudes or maxims in his words? The history of a race is in the richness of language, but one may wish not for race but for himself in speech — or for his friend. Henry will often desire the certainty of understanding as well as the surety of being understood.

Man has pierced so far what lies between himself and others — but only so far. He is hoping always to discover in words an open door — and finds them often at the best only a grating.