Words and meanings

I’m lying on the heath thinking about words.


Some people can get very exercised over the names we have chosen to give things, as if accuracy was more important than intention and meaning. It’s strange. As Shakespeare observed, “that which we call a rose / by any other name would smell as sweet.” If the intended meaning is conveyed, then the word has done it’s work, surely?

As a kid I wrote a long form essay, terrible from beginning to end, attempting to talk about the whole history of the world from beginning to us. “Primeval soup” was a phrase I used, and one of my teachers said “technically you should have said primordial soup”. I asked him “to mean what?” and he said “all the mess of matter and liquid at the earliest point in history,” and I thought “well he knew what I meant so what’s the issue?”

Sometimes language becomes about ownership. The in-crowd.

Arrogant ugliness. “I know the jargon better than you ipso facto I am better than you.” How many of you have been momentarily excluded from a conversation because some statusarse corrected your jargon?

I did a Latin in the last paragraph. You didn’t have to know precisely what it meant because the sentence and the context – hopefully – told you. So that’s fine. It’s when you use your specialist knowledge to deliberately exclude others that you should have your nose shaved off with a cheesegrater.

At the Buddhist meeting the other night we were talking about “Nam myo ho renge kyo,” which we chant. Nam is Sanskrit, the rest is Japanese. There’s a lovely mischief at the heart of Nichiren’s practice that says it doesn’t even matter if people don’t know what it means, it’s just about the chanting it.

“If the meaning doesn’t matter, what if we just chant it all in Sanskrit?” asks one of us. And yeah, why not try it? But I guess some of these words and phrases, these sounds and these praises – we’ve arrived at them after years of hunting and perhaps the time spent securing them has deepened their usability. Nam myo ho renge kyo is a choice. It could have been Plip plop bingle bungle boop, but it isn’t, and if you start chanting that one you’re likely on your own, even if it might be fun for a bit. If you chant Nam myo go renge kyo you’re inevitably doing it simultaneously with loads of people all over the world, and plugging in a little bit to that huge web of connection and resonance that shoots through every living creature in every time and every version of reality in this mess of space we’re stuck in.

It’s rife in the spiritual community, this linguistic one-upmanship. It’s a useful way of seeding out the true practitioners from the frauds who do it for ego and money. If somebody slaps you down for getting it wrong they’re probably male and definitely arses.

I was talking with Louise the other day. “Nobody was using the phrase ‘holding space’ ten years ago,” she observed – “but it’s very helpful and we know exactly what it means. I wonder where it came from.” She’s right. It is helpful – and sounds American to me… So we use it. And as long as you don’t correct somebody for saying “running the experience” or “being in charge of the ceremony” then I won’t get the cheesegrater.

Author: albarclay

This blog is a work of creative writing. Do not mistake it for truth. All opinions are mine and not that of my numerous employers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: