You ever have one of those moments when a word suddenly sounds bizarre? When you think about a word too long and suddenly it sounds impossibly strange? I have those. And I’m not the only one who is, at times, befuddled by ordinary words. That’s right, I know you’re out there, fellow Word-fuddlers. You are not alone.
What makes it happen? If a word isn’t weird, but suddenly becomes that way to you, should you be concerned? Should you call your therapist? It’s kind of scary, after all. “Yeah, hey Monica. I um…when I think about the word ‘antiquated’ my tongue feels like I’m licking a wooden waffle and my brain does a face plant…yeah, I know that seems unreasonable…I know, my brain doesn’t have a face…no, waffles are made from flour and milk and stuff and…okay now ‘waffle’ is starting to sound weird.”
I think most of us who have experienced this phenomenon have come to realize, at some point, that it happens when you think too long about a word. I can remember being a teenager, a word-fuddlery virgin, trying to convince my friends that the word “often” was the strangest thing to occur in the English language. The reason, I later came to understand, is that I used the word too…well, often.
Let’s try it together shall we? I’m not saying we should do it often, but let’s consider what often happens when you use a word too often. You don’t have to say it aloud, but please mouth out the word often with me, every time it appears here, which is often. Often enough perhaps to induce word-fuddlery? Perhaps. Perhaps not often enough. Are you saying it with me now? Often. Often. Often.
It looks weeeeeeird now right? Often. Ah – f – ten. Offtin. Ahftun. Auffe-tonn. Just LOOK at it. Often.
It’s not a positive feeling either, is it? You didn’t enjoy reading that, I’ll bet. You’re probably feeling a vague relief at the fact that I’m not using that word now (don’t worry, I won’t betray your trust and use it again…soon). When a word becomes a puzzle, it’s almost like we’ve failed somehow. Failed to properly ignore the inanity of a necessarily mundane, common triviality. I suppose that makes sense.
For example, imagine that, during a date with a possible romantic partner, you became preoccupied with the rhythm of your breathing while trying to eat and talk. Yargh! And have you ever had that feeling like you can’t maintain proper posture while walking when someone attractive is looking at you? Egads! It’s horrible!
So that’s it then, the answer is simple: just don’t think about words too long and they won’t go rogue on you. Protect the language center of your brain from the beguiling abyss lurking behind every word you think, say, read or hear by forgetting the abyss is there.
Sure, no problem. Ignoring the pink elephant is easy. I’ve done that before. If I can ignore the urgent, burn-holes-in-your-eyes cleavage mocking my forcefully diverted attention under the chin of a gorgeous date (who is only trying to have a conversation and would appreciate eye contact from me thank you very much), I can ignore the crisis that unfolds when I think about how perplexing the word ‘perplexing’ is, and whether this counts as onomatopoeia.
But very recently I encountered a phenomenon that takes word-fuddlery to a new level. I stepped a little further into the abyss.
I was pushing a grocery cart in a department store, feeling the rough vibration in its handle bar under my palms. I was bathed in fluorescent light, observing others similarly cloaked in sickly shades, noticing that the roof was pocked with sky-lites that let a precisely meted amount of sunlight in, and how its well-rounded spectrum was clearly distinguishable on the forms around me, refreshing and improving them. I was smelling the smell that grocery stores pass off as freshness but is really a less grotesque variant of the odor that stains their loading docks and trash bins. My jeans and cotton tee were rough on my skin. The time since my last sip of coffee was obvious by the taste in my mouth.
And suddenly, it was ALL weird. Everything. Every aspect of my being, my life, this planet and the beings and lives that I share it with, all of it. It was all ‘Often’. Unfitting, bewildering, impossible.
Now that is a strange place. I’d been there before, and I know I’m not alone in this type of fuddlery (meta-fuddlery?) either. Others feel it too. Some folks feel it frequently. And it’s unsettling not only because of how it feels, but because of what it suggests. When you overuse a word, you can retreat from it, forget it and move on. There’s nowhere to retreat to when you take a step back from the world. Existential crisis, man, it’s a bitch.
But while it’s a difficult experience, and one that infinitely hampers my ability to function on this planet , it also has utility. It outlines the significance of things. Putting a border on the footprint of everything that exists in my life, tangible or not, and reminding me that I have the capacity to make decisions and value judgements with the whole of my world as a factor and not a context. It’s similar to what it was like taking LSD (ahem, back in the days when I um…experimented…with limited quantities…), except that under the influence of LSD the significance of things, while outlined and highlighted, was unbearably beautiful. During meta-fuddlery, it trumps still but becomes immeasurably banal.
So, what’s the point, Mike?
Well, it seems the take-home message is this: our ability to function in this world is dependent upon our ability to ignore it. Without our default mode of focused interest on the details of our actual lives, we are capable of sensing the importance of everything outside of it. And just as you feel small and insignificant when you gaze at the cosmos too long, you can feel meaningless if you gaze at your own feet too long.
Is this what Nietzsche meant when he said, “…for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss also gazes into you”?
At what point does self-examination become destructive?
I’m sure I don’t know, but puppies are damned cute and I like playing with them. Pizza is the king of foods and demands worship if you have ever liked a food, ever. And sex, well, sex is many things, almost all of which are wonderful, even if they’re not.
The universe however, is awesome but nothing more. Constant, fun to think about, impossible to affect.
So for the sake of puppies, pizza, and sex, remember this: the big picture in our lives isn’t the biggest picture there is, and that’s just fine. Have a slice. Get some. Snuggle a puppy and try not to use words too…often.
Advice worthy of Confucius.