DIANE PHILLIPS: For all the words I’ve loved before . . .


Diane Phillips


Every time I hear the Willie Nelson song “For all the girls I’ve loved before”, I find myself transposing the word “words” for girls. I am not sure why and it probably doesn’t matter. I am not denouncing the right to love girls and Willie has my blessing. Personally, I have loved a few myself – my daughters and granddaughters and had I thought of my late mother as a girl instead of a mother, I would have included her.

Most females are worthy of love, starting with family, including my sister-in-law with whom I speak nearly every day, plus friends, but there is something about the love of words and sentence structure that writers love in a way that’s almost otherworldly, goose-bumpy. It is an affection that is indescribable, which is odd because writers are supposed to be able to describe. That’s why we write. To cobble together a thought from loose words and create something meaningful that makes life richer than it was before that sentence was struck. Finding the right words and marrying them into the right thought is kind of like mining for gold or crafting the perfect instrument. Life is just a bit better because of it.

If words were left to their own devices, they would just ramble around in space. Some would be special. Like belligerent or bellicose or rambunctious because they sound like what they are. They bellow rough, violent, negative sounds that match the vibe and convey their meaning. Maybe it is because they have heavy consonants and limited vowels or the vowels they contain are combined in a way that sounds harsh. Obnoxious sounds as obnoxious as the word implies. It almost reeks of obnoxiousness.

It’s a sad reality but most words don’t sound like what they mean at all. We have gotten used to them so we know what they mean but if we did not know we would have no idea what they represent. We have to be taught the meaning of each word in our vocabulary which is a pretty incredible feat when you stop to think about it. The tough ones are not necessarily the long, complex and multisyllabic. The tough ones are those that do not sound like what they mean or sound opposite of what they mean. Like lucid. To me, lucid sounds like someone who just lost it, not found it.

Everyone has his or her favourite words, sounds that just roll off the tongue like they belong in mid-air, catching the breeze instead of being clogged inside where they do no one any good at all. Me, I like words that make me smile or laugh. Like jelly which strikes me as humorous because I picture something, anything, trying to stand still but wobbling uncontrollably, as if it over-imbibed, an expression that is totally pompous but more refined than blasted. Words can be classified as adjectives. Many are, of course. But I like to think of what the adjectives are that would describe a word. Lovely. Soft. Sloppy.

I’ve been asking people all week what their favourite word was or what word they most disliked. One well-respected man said without hesitation: “Pickle”. Why pickle? “Don’t know,” he said. “It just gets me.” It’s a strange one, I’ll give it that. Pickle, you can have one on a sandwich, on the side or be in one, like if you lie and are about to get caught and you don’t know whether to run or confess. Pickle is also weird as a word because it is book-ended by rhyming words disparate in nature. Trickle as in the economic trickle-down effect, which is a relatively good thing, and fickle, which is just plain awful especially if you are the victim. Or prickle, even the sound of which makes you cringe. Yanking out a prickle helps and yank is one of those words that sounds like what it means. It’s short, tight and to the point. You can feel it working.

An editor I admire shared his least favourites, one of them being persons. It’s not people he dislikes. He approves of people and doesn’t know why persons, I mean, people, insist on saying persons when they mean people. A person is an individual. A group of persons is people. Why? A dog is a dog and multiple species of that same animal is dogs so why do multiple persons have to be people? He and I agreed to disagree on that but we agreed on that, the word that, that is, which is overused and dropped into too many sentences where it does not belong like a relative who overstays his welcome. And that is another thing. Sentences have no way of controlling themselves. They can’t sit up in the middle of a paragraph that was otherwise going along pretty smoothly and say “Hey, this part isn’t working. Fix me.

It is possible, even likely, one of the reasons words continue to fascinate writers is because doing them justice is so demanding. It takes every bit of mental muscle and focus to get them right. When we don’t, we self-punish and flagellate. No one else has to punish us. We do it to ourselves because words and thoughts and ideas and expression are so critical to our well-being. Sometimes I am tempted to use expressions like wanting to disabuse myself of the notion that…and then I think disabusing is so pretentious, why don’t I just say ‘get rid of’ or ‘dismiss’ or “forget about” but there is something almost rhythmic about disabuse that expressions like “get rid of” just don’t possess.

There is no sensible explanation for my fascination with words. I was not a particularly poor child. One year my father owned an amusement park and I got to ride a roller coaster all day on Saturdays. I never tired of the thrill. Another time he owned a movie theatre. Mostly I got junk toys from the penny machine and all the popcorn I could eat. The point is I was not short of things to play with so not sure why I chose words as my favourite plaything.

One of the most intriguing parts of playing with words is taking a plain word like “place” and decorating it up one side and down the other. Think of what you can do with the word place – you can misplace something and if you are lucky, you will find it but if you displace it, like an ethnic group, it will be a much greater challenge than something you misplace. To displace as in the water that rises when you lower the baby into the tub, there’s nothing you can do about that until the baby is clean. Or when you lose something and have to replace it, you are back to the starting point, looking for a place to purchase it.

There are a thousand more things a word hound can say about words because that’s one thing about them. They can often run on but they never run out.

Enough said. I know you’ve been waiting. All together now...

To all the girls I’ve loved before

Who travelled in and out my door

I’m glad they came along

I dedicate this song

To all the girls I’ve loved before


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