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What's in a Word? Part II

Posted on Friday, December 29, 2017 at 9:49 PM

Words can fail. How do we choose the ones that best fit the occasion?

By Peter P. Jacobi

Last issue I ended on the topic of "words that paint a picture." Now, on to "words that fail."

Consider how stupidly exaggerating this advertisement from the fragrance Emporio Armani: "Together we can fly. Together we touch the sky. Together we are unstoppable." The photos constructed to support those unbelievable messages complement the words. I guess the ad might make a few readers feel good enough to seek out the product. Somehow, however, this sort of salesmanship mocks the language, and I ask myself again: "What's in a word?"

But then, these Madison Avenue gurus often fail with words, turning car commercials, for instance, into inane visual journeys through fantasy and fable, having decided that it's not enough to tell us how solid the car is and dependable and reasonably priced for what we get. Words can fail.

Words That Fill Silence

Those of us who write and edit know that. And it's best to be up-front about such situations and to be ourselves as we express what needs to be expressed. The most profound lesson might come when we face the most unbelievable, face experiences that leave us speechless and drained. For instance, when there are returns to that dormant hell on earth, Auschwitz.

The New York Times' A. M. Rosenthal did and won a Pulitzer for his report, "There Is No News from Auschwitz." It begins: "The most terrible thing of all, somehow, was that at Brzezinka the sun was bright and warm, the rows of graceful poplars were lovely to look upon, and on the grass near the gates children played. It all seemed frighteningly wrong, as in a nightmare, that at Brzezinka the sun should ever shine or that there should be light and greenness and the sound of young laughter. It would be fitting if at Brzezinka the sun never shone and the grass withered, because this is a place of unutterable terror."

At the end of his report, detailing what he experienced during a personal visit, he concludes: "There is nothing new to report about Auschwitz. It was a sunny day and the trees were green and at the gates the children played."

What more could have been said or should have been?

Words That Are Honest

Former NBA star Ray Allen visited Auschwitz recently. He wrote: "The first thing I felt when I walked through those iron gates was ... heavy. The air around me felt heavy. I stood on the train tracks where the prisoners of the camp would arrive, and I felt like I could hear the trains coming to a halt. I had to take a breath to center myself. It was so immediate, so overwhelming.

"We walked through the barracks and gas chambers, and what I remember most is what I heard: nothing. I've never experienced silence like that. Apart from footsteps, the complete lack of sound was almost jarring. It's eerie and sobering. You're standing in these rooms where so much death has taken place, and your mind is trying to come to terms with all that's happened in this space.

"One question keeps repeating over and over and over in your mind: How can human beings do this to one another? How does somebody process that? You can't."

Words. How to find the right ones. Not by fussing over them but reacting naturally to what has happened to you.

One more reflection on Auschwitz, by a survivor, Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel: "Let us repeat it once again: Auschwitz is something else, always something else. It is a universe outside the universe, a creation that exists parallel to creation. Auschwitz lies on the other side of life and on the other side of death. There, one lives differently, one walks differently, one dreams differently. Auschwitz represents the negation and failure of human progress. It negates the human design and casts doubts on its validity. Then, it defeated culture; later it defeated art because just no one could imagine Auschwitz before Auschwitz, no one can now retell Auschwitz after Auschwitz. The truth of Auschwitz remains hidden in its ashes. Only those who lived it in their flesh and in their minds can possibly transform their experience into knowledge. Others, despite their best intentions, can never do so."

Those words differ from those of Rosenthal and Allen because they have been released out of a survivor's reality. They are honest in a different way. But all three reactions are expressed in words with gripping focus. And they are honest.

We must always be honest; that's when language serves us best.

I'll have more to say about this at some point, sooner or later. But enough for now, I think. Enough to think about.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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