Smiling all the way to work

Words and all their permutations are wonderful human implements, but they fail us in an important way.

Words and all their permutations are wonderful human implements, but they fail us in an important way.

Published May 12, 2024


If life smiles on you, you will have a job.

If it beams at you, you will have found a way to make a living doing something you are passionate about and spend hours pondering, honing and polishing.

With murky origins and a wide range of attributions from Confucius to Mark Twain, the famous quote “choose a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” is as close to human truth as anything “they say”. When I grow up, I want to be as wise as “they”.

It doesn’t matter if your work does not make you rich and famous, unless, of course, it’s your job to be rich and famous, and that is what makes you happy.

Words have kept me passionately employed for more than 40 years. The beauty and splendour of individual words fired up the initial love affair that became the pursuit of satisfying, succulent sentences.

When all the family library books and school library books had been read, there were other treasures: a huge dictionary and a complete set of donated-bysomeone encyclopaedias. With a sense of discovery that rivalled the early explorers, that dictionary was plundered from A-Z. You could let it fall open with a guarantee of finding a new word, or you could read it in order.

There was no googling or spellchecking back in the frontier days: words had to be read, said and learned because if you didn’t know how to spell them it didn’t count.

A few of us older wordies were holdouts: we all still had real books – pocket, concise, thesaurus – that we actually used to check or find words in, near our keyboards. We also had that Ruler of All Things Newspaper, The Style Guide, on paper, including tweaks and exceptions for each title.

It was also beaten into us that never, ever, on pain of a deluge of verbal outrage, were we to let an Americanism such as sidewalk, center, the zed words like recognize, pass uncorrected. Most of us lived in terror of doing so and being wrathed upon. You can even have fun and make up good words.

Now it’s all online, including the style guide. And sometimes spellcheck or auto correct cause their own humiliations and disasters: the bloody auto thingy changed terror in the previous paragraph to terrier, for example.

It’s all very well knowing lots of words: the holy grail is putting them alongside others to make magic. No one, no matter how skilled or well-equipped, will ever be able to reach that nirvana because, well, you could have chosen better in every sentence. It’s a beautiful goal that will always be beyond reach.

The couch has been ruminating on the life of words for ages, because as humans, words fail us at times we need them most: as salve to someone in pain.

Even when each word is chosen with care, compassion and great sincerity, none can give solace or healing or remove suffering from another. It is always something experienced alone, part of each individual’s path in this rich thing called life.

The giver feels inadequate and the receiver will still face sorrow and sudden, often unexpected, bouts of grief. When the best retreat is a corner of the shower to ugly cry. It’s the only time words are useless.

Still, we try our best and that is all we can do.

We should consider that we do not always see someone’s grief, and try to be more gentle and kind in general so that life will smile, maybe not as brightly as before, but once more.

That’s a job we could all embrace.

Independent on Saturday

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