The Bookshelf – When Words Lose Their Meaning

By Monty Hagler

As RLF packed up the office space we occupied for nine years, I faced difficult choices on what to keep, give away, recycle or trash. That is particularly true when it comes to books. I’m old-school print, with hundreds of books in the office and thousands on the shelves at home. Sinceimg_5279 childhood, literature has fueled wonder, discovery, laughter, suspense, adventure and knowledge in my life. It’s easy to gather, much harder to discard.

When the dust settled, 20 books made the move to the new office. This Orange Slices post marks the first in a series about each book that opened my eyes to a broader world or taught me lessons that still resonate. I don’t distinguish between reading for pleasure or business, but I do follow a cardinal rule to put a book down if I’m not enjoying it or finding value from it in the first 35 pages.

I’ve had “When Words Lose Their Meaning” by James Boyd White since 1988 when I was in graduate school at Temple University in Philadelphia. Its central lesson is that as our world evolves in literal and figurative ways, the way we describe, capture and comprehend the world must adapt as well.

As White observes: “Sometimes one’s language seems a perfect vehicle for speech and action. It can be used almost automatically to say or to do what one wishes. But at other times a speaker may find that he no longer has a language adequate to his needs and purpose, to his sense of himself and his world; his words lose their meaning.”

That sentiment perfectly captured my bewilderment during my first few months in Philadelphia. I was a stranger in a strange land with my North Carolina accent, willingness to open doors and complete bewilderment on how to ride the subway or why sports fans rained boos rather than cheers on their teams. If not for the kindness and street savvy of friends such as Mary C., Mark P. and Steve T., I would not have made it past the first semester. Even the gulf between the work as an undergraduate and graduate student seemed enormous and challenging.

As White observes, “The world is made, not found.” Language helps us create not only speech, but also shapes our conduct, understanding and ways of organizing the world. When all seems turned upside down, we often find ourselves grasping for adequate words or creating new ones. Oxford Dictionary just named “post-truth” the word of the year, and terms such as “alt-right” and “fake news” now help us categorize events.

I freely admit that I yet do not fully understand most of the sections highlighted in fading greens and yellow of my now tattered text. But I keep it on my shelf to remind me that our words as much as our actions drive an ever-shifting world of perceptions, beliefs and behaviors. That perspective frequently shapes my guidance to RLF clients in times of crisis, when the tone and precision of statements are critical for addressing key stakeholders. I keep it to remind me of a time when my world was hard, when I was alone, on my own financially for the first time, overwhelmed with academic challenges and figuring out the path forward.

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