A man in Australia named Charles Bliss published a three-volume work of what he hoped would become a universal sign language. War and destruction, he believed, come from the misuse and degradation of words. People take real, good words and repurpose them to excuse and promote abominable acts. People are reduced to non-lives. Numbers. Things. Perhaps this could be prevented through the preservation of meaning in incorruptible symbols. Charles drew them. He called them Blissymbolics. Negation did not factor into this signed language and, unsurprisingly, the few people who used the system added a negative sign and began to alter the symbols to suit their specific needs. This was a problem; the system’s integrity lay in its universality.
Language is difficult without the communication of an opposite or a converse. The specificities of the world are often best described by what they are not, and two million or so years of world-describing couldn’t be overhauled by one man—at least, not by an Austro-Hungarian emigré jew in 1949. We admired Charles’ effort, however difficult we found it to imagine describing shadow without describing the absence of light, or dreams without the lack of conscious reality—although a description of reality was something that we tended to steer clear of altogether, for obvious reasons.
Then we thought about another Charles and his elephants, and how he had realized that, years ago, the ones with short trunks died earlier than the ones with long trunks because the ones with short trunks couldn’t reach the water supply that was slowly diminishing. When breeding season rolled around there were more long-trunks than short-trunks and so they passed their long-trunk genes down to the next generation. So, too, with words. When words can’t keep up, they become neglected, dry, brittle. Thick, full words that Darwin loved, like musth and mirabilia. Their middles fall out, then their beginnings and ends.
If we don’t know their histories, words can betray us. Etymology comes from the Greek root ἔτυμον; true. Look up quaint in the Oxford English Dictionary. We’ll never use it to describe a sea-side town again. Love, the noun, means a feeling of deep affection or fondness for someone, typically arising from a recognition of attractive qualities, from natural affinity, or from sympathy, and manifesting itself in concern for the other’s welfare and pleasure in his or her presence.
But it means any one of a set of transverse beams supporting the spits in a herring smokehouse, too.