Language gives us words to think in.
Without words, our thoughts, hopes and dreams would have little definition; they would be nebulous and difficult to express. A single word can encapsulate a whole range of ideas, allowing us to ‘own’ what we are experiencing and thinking.
One of my favourites is resistentialism … the term for when inanimate items (the printer that goes wrong when you’re in a hurry; the doorway you’re always banging your elbow on) seem to be conspiring against you. I’ve spent a lot of energy over the years a) shouting at furniture and b) threatening to throw electrical appliances out of the window – so to find that this is a phenomenon with a proper name, is reassuring. I am not a lunatic: I am part of a community of like-minded people with an understandable grudge against belligerent objects.
The phrase word salad gave me a quick way to dismiss the meaningless drivel spewed out by authorities and marketers … virtue signalling provided me with the phrase I’d been looking for, after decades of revulsion at those who just have to let you know how ‘good’ they are. And the term gaslighting enabled me to understand that I Was Not Mad, that Others Had Been There Before Me and that People Would Understand – because it had an actual name, and it was real.
But the word which gave me the most joy on discovering it, was mansplaining.
[Right – I’m going to jump in straight away and say that I think men are great and I hugely appreciate all the men in my life, and that this is a blogpost about the value of WORDS and MEANINGS and not a takedown of men. But mansplaining is definitely a thing, so I’m going to talk about it. Is that clear? Jolly good. Onwards …]
Here is something that happened to me many years ago, which I hope will demonstrate how important it was for me to discover the ‘M’-word for the first time.
Back in my musician days, I was playing in an opera orchestra for a season of Bizet’s Carmen. The orchestra was sat in a darkened ‘pit’, which meant we all had lamps attached to our music stands to enable us to see the music.
During one rehearsal, my lamp cut out. Having a basic understanding of domestic electrical wiring, I guessed that one of three things had happened: the bulb had blown, the fuse had gone – or there was a dodgy wire connection somewhere. The easiest one to check was the third option. I gave the wire leading into the lamp a wiggle and – lo and behold – the lamp flickered on and off. I’d got lucky and discovered that a loose connection was to blame.
I informed the conductor that my lamp had stopped working. I started to tell him that I’d given the lead a wiggle and knew it was a loose connection … but he wasn’t listening. He leapt from his podium and started poking about in the light fitting, postulating about bulbs and fuses. I tried again to say that I had already figured out it was a loose wire – but, surprisingly for a musician, he seemed to have become totally deaf. The (male) oboist sitting next to me also started meddling with the light and joined in with confident proclamations about fuses, plugs and new bulbs. Then the company electrician got involved … once more I tried in vain to talk about the loose wire … but by now all three of them had somehow got between me and my music stand, and my little voice piping up behind them had no credence. I watched them posture and point and waste a LOT of time trying new fuses and bulbs, all the while giving a running commentary about what they reckoned was going wrong. Finally, they worked out the problem was the wire, the electrician fixed it – and I became visible again just in time to have everything explained to me in great detail.
‘It was a loose connection,’ lectured one of them. ‘It wasn’t the bulb or the fuse.’ … And then I got a patronising lesson in primary-school level circuitry.
I said nothing.
The whole experience left me feeling belittled. I had been ignored, talked over, disregarded; assumed to have nothing of value to contribute; branded as lacking in knowledge or skills; physically excluded; treated like a child. And it had happened to me many times before.
I had always assumed that there must be something about me that made these men treat me this way; something lacking in my demeanour, something unconvincing … something coming from me that screamed ‘idiot’. It must be me, right?
And then, one day, the word mansplaining was invented and burst into my consciousness like a healing spring. The most glorious portmanteau ever created! All that I had experienced, beautifully summarised in 12 letters. A word which, ever since, has allowed me to dismiss being patronised with a smile, and an understanding that It’s Not Me … it’s just that sad old mansplainer guffing out hot air for reasons which are probably a bit sad, but are nothing to do with me.
We need words – we need NEW words – to give meaning to our thoughts and experiences. Words stop emotions rattling around destructively inside us, undefined, elusive, troubling. Words give our thoughts direction, refine our feelings – and most important of all, give us a voice, to express ourselves clearly, confidently – and with a sense that others will understand us.
“A word has power in and of itself. It comes from nothing into sound and meaning; it gives origin to all things.” ― N. Scott Momaday
Couldn’t have put it better myself.