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It’s just a word……..

June 11, 2013

Three examples from conversations I have had or overheard:

1. “Hey man, I had an awesome download in the ceremony last night.”

2. Question: “Can you lend me your flashlight”

Answer: ” Sure”

Response: “Awesome”

3. “Wow! This mall is awesome” (Overheard at Larcomar shopping center, Miraflores, Lima)

dont think just be awesome

It seems that these days the word awesome (the A-word) can be used to describe anything good, noteworthy and/or pleasing – from a shopping mall to a fancy basketball move to a rock festival. It can even be used as a substitute for thank you, as in the second example above.

The growing use of the A-word, especially when it comes out of the mouths of my Dutch, Danish, German, Australian, Swiss, Austrian and other friends, bothers me and makes me cringe. In response, I’m told by my young Dutch friend in a slightly exasperated tone – “its only a word, Paul”. But words are important. Why?

awesome hot dogFirstly, awesome is a word, like freedom or terrorism, that is getting stripped of its meaning and power. A word that should be used to describe experiences that genuinely evoke awe and/or terror – what Jung called numinous experiences – is getting used to describe hamburgers (or hot-dogs).

This is part of the trivialization, dumbing down and distortion of language, as foreseen by George Orwell in his brilliant, dystopian novel 1984, where the language of Newspeak serves to eliminate personal, critical thought by restricting the expressiveness of the English language.

(And just in case anyone has any doubts about the prescience of Orwell’s novel, take a look at recent revelations about the  activities of the National Security Agency in the USA where it is clear that Big Brother is indeed watching you.)

But it’s only a word…isn’t it?

Secondly, it’s interesting to trace the history of the use of the A-word. It first appeared in the “Official Preppy Handbook” in 1980 and began to be adopted widely in the Reagan era (1981-1989). So I don’t think its too fanciful to say that the growing widespread use of this word happens side-by-side with the exportation to the whole world of US neo-liberal policies of economic and cultural globalization. It’s part of what Karl Marx termed the cultural and ideological superstructure which legitimates the economic base. When I hear a Shipibo say the A-word I know that nearly all will be lost.

george_w_bush_awesomeThe project of neo-liberalism is to give everything a monetary value so that it can be marketed and sold – and we don’t have to be David Icke to see that this is in the interests of the (possibly reptilian) ruling elite and transnational corporations.

Not just traditional economic goods can be sold but what used to be basic human rights like access to clean water. The easier that everything can be given a quantitative value the easier it can included and traded in the world economy. Taking the mystery away from the world, making all experiences equally awesome, helps greatly in this process.

But its only a word!

According to my intellectual hero and mentor James Hillman, words have soul. He says: “Words too burn and become flesh as we speak”. To quote him at length, from his important book “Revisioning Psychology”:

“We need to recall the angel aspect of the word, recognizing words as independent carriers of soul between people. We need to recall that we do not just make words up or learn them at school, or ever have them fully under control. Words, like angels, are powers which have invisible power over us. They are personal presences which have whole mythologies: genders, genealogies, (etymologies concerning origins and creations), histories, and vogues; and their own guarding, blaspheming, creating and annihilating effects. For words are persons.”

Hillman’s perspective is found too in magical traditions where words have power. Words are not to be taken lightly or messed around with. To know the real name of something is to evoke it.

I recently finished reading the first part of an excellent fantasy trilogy by Patrick Rothfuss called “The Name of the Wind“. The book traces the journey of the main character from observing someone being able to manifest and control the wind by naming it to the character himself being able to draw down that power. In the university imagined by the author, where people study magic, (like a grown up Hogwarts), the most enigmatic, disturbed and powerful professor is the one that knows the real name of things.

But it’s just a word.

Words have the power to shape experiences. For example,  I have an additional distaste for the word ‘download’ when people use this word to describe their experiences with La Madre Ayahausca.

Button Download now

By using a word like ‘download’, which implies that our minds are a type of computing hardware, people are evoking metaphors from the language of computing and information technology to describe and communicate their experiences – the same machine metaphor that Descartes ushered in the modern scientific worldview with – but this time it is not simple clockwork, as with Descartes, but sophisticated mechanism.

There is a further irony here, too, because the very paradigm that La Madre Ayahuasca is so good at subverting – the Western, materialistic, no-nonsense view of the world – is being used to describe the experiences she brings to us. Soon, I’ll be including God as a friend on Facebook.

In fairness, when I have talked to one of my friends and she describes in detail her experience in ceremony of being given a large quantity of what she calls ‘information’ or worse ‘data’, I have to confess that I have never had this type of experience. Madre Ayahuasca tends to talk briefly and almost elliptically to me – so I have to pay attention when she speaks – rather then filling my mind with the Encyclopedia Britannica or knowledge of other universes.

Perhaps if I had this kind of experience, I would call it a ‘download’. I hope not. I would prefer to see these experiences as occurring through the the grace of God, rather then via some gigantic supercomputer downloading information into our minds.

But its just a word.

No, once again, the words we use shape our experience. Actually, the relationship between language and experience was the subject of most philosophy of the second half of the last century. When I studied sociology in the 1970’s, the  “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis” in vogue then argued in its ‘strong’ version that language determines thought. The ‘weaker’ version maintained that language influences, rather then determines, thought and cognition. The kind of language we use influences what we can pay attention to and, as Orwell pointed out in his novel,  both makes available and restricts what it is possible to think about.

Later, to cut a very long story short, with the influence of post-modernist philosophy, language and the words we use was seen to be possibly the main medium in which we create the world we live in.

Of course, I am not arguing here that there are not experiences – and these are often the kinds of experience encountered with La Madre Ayahuasca – which are ‘beyond’ language. But if we want to communicate these experiences with others, and as I indicated in a recent blog, we may choose not to do this, we typically use language – especially if, like me, we cannot use other media such as art or music to express ourselves.

The key point is that the kinds of words we use to describe our experience, such as having ‘an awesome download‘, are important. Words are not just arbitrary signifiers as the structuralists beginning with De Saussure in the 1900’s wanted us to believe. David Abram, in his two books ‘The Spell of the Sensuous’ (lovely title) and ‘Being Animal’, demonstrates beautifully that words, especially in indigenous languages, bear some relation to what they describe.

If words were just arbitrary, if it really is just a word, we would not have poetry, and would not have the opportunity to use language to adequately and eloquently express the depth and richness of human experience.

Hafiz_Persian_Poet_On_Love

This is all exquisitely summarized in ten words by the Persian poet Hafiz when he wrote:

“The words you speak become the house you live in”

(I don’t want to live in a house made up of awesome downloads)

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3 Comments
  1. Although I am guilty of using this word in casual conversation, I very much agree with you that language is important and that as Hillman often lamented, we are losing our language. Our language gives us nuance and both frames colors our experience. It may only approximate an underlying world that we can’t quite articulate fully, but it’s our bird song, so to speak.
    Debra

    • CosmicDrBii permalink

      I very much like the idea of language being our bird song and a bird that continually uses the A-word in its singing does not sing a good song, in my opinion.

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