Words are all in the mind


My apartment is currently sandwiched between two building sites where cranes, pile drives, heavy lifting machinery, concrete mixers and hundreds of construction workers are creating a new 52-storey tower and adding a further eleven floors to an old one that already stands 30 storeys high!

One thing that has fascinated me during this work is the fact that when the most hefty of objects, like an RSJ (rolled-steel joist) is suspended even only a few inches from the ground, a gloved fore-finger can deflect the place of its landing or, by being wagged at a crane driver way up in the sky, cause it to be removed completely. Once set down, uncoupled and cemented in, however, nothing short of an earthquake will have the power to shift it.

This being the case, any uncertainty about whether it is being set down in the right place halts proceedings while a structural engineer is called in to assess the situation and avoid any unintended consequences that misplacement could trigger within the whole structure.

The constant checking and re-checking of ‘get-togethers’ that I see going on has made me think how important it is for those of us who have to present written directives to be absolutely sure that the words we use really do stand for the meaning we intend.

Think for a moment of the index finger as a metaphor for the tongue: able to wag words into spoken sentences, but always able to deflect, twist, reiterate, reinstate ideas or even at the very last moment not state those ideas at all.

Now, think of the placement of those same words when set down on a page or a screen so they become fixed segments of a complete work. Once cemented in place, there they remain.

Though there must always be thought before speech, there is always a possibility of holding something back or deflecting attention away at the last minute. But once out of our mouths, even if someone can recount what we said verbatim or has recorded what we were saying, spoken words tend to drift away into the atmosphere.

But once those same words are written down and recorded as hard copy, they become the very structure of our meaning.

That’s why we are now seeing the phenomenon of individuals seeking to have their digital histories (the words that document their actions) removed from Google because they are keen to erase their pasts. It’s also why we so often see politicians or C-list celebrities hit the headlines after making some “foot-in-mouth” comment only to retract them claiming that they mis-spoke” or were “misheard”. This is nonsense, of course. “Mis-speaking” is an impossibility. It’s mis-thinking that caused their problems!

Only words related to consciously-held ideas can pop out of a human mouth without forethought. Anyone making a genuine slip of the tongue corrects themselves instinctively and immediately, often in the same breath.

So anyone who has no racist, sexist or any other sort of antisocial thoughts is in no danger of suddenly constructing words related to such matters out of context, because that person’s memory bank contained no such elements in the first place.

And the moral of this story? Never allow sloppy thinking to undermine the crux of an argument. If you do - just as in the case of any construction site - its deficiencies may eventually topple the whole edifice.

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About The Author

Janet Howd
Janet Howd

Janet Howd is a voice coach who works with corporate, academic, legal, theatrical and private clients in the UK, North America, Australia and Europe.