Hard Questions, Crazy Love
Of Journals

The "Magic" in Words

Glamour"Language and magic.  Where is the connection?  Think about it this way: when we form letters to write words, we create something out of nothing, so that the still air or the empty space on a page fills with meaning, as if a wizard created a blizzard from a clear blue sky."

(Roy Peter Clark, in The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English)

Granted, Roy Peter Clark's new book on grammar does not contain the pithiness of that classic by Strunk and White, The Elements of Grammar, but the point is not so much instruction as it is romance.  Clark loves words, and he wants to share those words with us, to woo us with punctuation, pronouns, and apostrophes, to, in a way that the more staid William Strunk and E.B. White might not countenance, to give us a sense of the magic that lies in grammar.

Magic?  I cannot comment on the book as a whole quite yet, as I am only slowly making my way through it, but the phrase quoted above did jump off the page when I read it --- "when we form letters to create words, we create something out of nothing" --- and I thought immediately of the way God creates, creation ex nihilo (out of nothing), and how He spoke by word nonetheless into being all that exists.  Surely he could have just thought it, and yet he spoke it into being.  That's deep magic, to use Aslan's words in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  In making words there truly is magic.

In A Poetry Handbook, poet Mary Oliver says that there is a "part of the poem that is a written document, as opposed to a mystical document, which of course the poem is also."  When you read Oliver's poetry, the words are quite simple and accessible, and yet the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.  Perhaps that is what she intended to say, that somehow words on a page point to realities beyond our full experience, hinting at but not plumbing (indeed, unable to fully plumb) their depths.  Word are iconic, meaning they tend to represent something else to us, work only by way of analogy.

All that is true, but there is more to it.  Dorothy Sayers, in The Mind of the Maker, says that in our creating, in our word-making even, we are imaging the Creator.  Because He created, we create.  And even though we cannot create ex nihilo as could He, still we image that kind of creation faintly when we scratch words on a page, when we set them down in a way not exactly like any way set down before.  There may be nothing new under the sun, and yet there are new ways of combining the raw stuff of words into poetry and prose to make what seems new, to make what is fresh.  When we do that we participate in something divine, imitating the Creator, icons if you will (images, or likenesses) of that Creator.  Sayers even breaks it down further, seeing the full Godhead in the act of creating, the perfect idea representing the Father, the incarnation of that perfect idea the Son, and the movement of that idea and response by the reader as akin to the work of the Spirit.

Seeing words in this way gives them dignity.  Even a little word like "it," one common and ubiquitous in writing and speech, is important and can stand up to the boasts of a word like "irenic" or the headiness of a word like "ecclesiology," a word not bandied about by most construction workers in Taco Bell.  "It" has much more utility.  And yet, they are all important, all full of dignity.  And of course so are their makers.

You didn't know all that was going on when you open your mouth to utter a word or typed a word on the keyboard, did you?

Magic?  Certainly.  Glamour?  It's much more than glamour.  When we make words, skillfully or awkwardly, we represent a word-full Creator to the world.  We're all word-makers; the best handlers of words (like Tolkien) are world-makers; and God. . . well He cannot stop making worlds.  It's who He is.

So next time you open your mouth to speak or set pen to paper or finger to keypad to dash off an email, consider the weightiness of what you do. What Mary Oliver said of poetry can be true of anything well-written or said: "[They are] not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry." Let's spend them well.