Words, Words, Words

Phil CousineauOctober 30, 2023Now and ThenPerSpectives

I grew up on the lap of Homer, and I don’t mean Homer Simpson. I mean Homer, the immortal Greek poet, who wrote two of the most famous books of all time, the Iliad and the Odyssey.

I remember them well because I read junior versions of them when I was a kid growing up outside of Detroit, and then read every translation I could lay my hands on over the next few decades. But my love of Greek myth and poetry began the night our old black and white Philco television hissed and fizzed and went dark. My father boldly announced that we were watching too much TV anyway — so he wasn’t going to fix it. Instead, he said, we were going to read books out loud together as a family. With that declaration, we became one of the last families in America to read out loud together every Saturday night for the next few years. But not just any books — my father insisted we read the classics, only the time-tested books that lasted at least a few generations. What happened was this: my dad, mom, brother, sister, and I all would read a page a piece. If we came across a word we didn’t understand (rapscallion in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, goblin in Grimm’s Fairy Tales, or tintinnabulation in Edgar Allan Poe’s Collected Poems) my father would grin and point to the ginormous Thorndike-Barnhart Dictionary in the corner of the living room and say, “Look it up. That’s why I bought the darn thing. I promise that if you learn to love the beauty of words, you will never be alone.”

Words, words, words. I’ve been haunted and enchanted by them ever since. I have read nearly a book a day since I was in junior high school, as well as a few newspapers and magazines. Of course, I also listen to music of every stripe, some classical, but mostly songs with great or clever lyrics. I also tune into ballgames on the radio, especially when I’m writing, and watch a few great movies.

What this means is that I’m either reading, listening to, or watching words day and night. It’s too much to say this is how I became what you might call “The Accidental Storyteller.” I was a shy kid, but eventually got a job as a sportswriter for my hometown paper when I was only 16 and was amazed to learn that I could make a living — and a life — out of words. That is because I had to develop a way to talk to people, interview them, and then tell their story. This helped me become a writer, but what compelled me to take those life lessons about the importance of words to the next stage was “taking to the road” after graduating from college. I traveled around the world for the next three years and learned a hard lesson, which is that when you’re a stranger in a strange land you need words (and gestures) to help you communicate. Not just the ones you grew up with, but also local ones, well, if you want to eat or find a place to sleep or take a train to your next exciting destination. As Mark Twain famously said, “Travel is the death of prejudice,” but I would like to update that aphorism to say travel can also be the end of our suspicion about words!

Later in life, I’ve come to appreciate how words can help us make friends or get a job, but words can also provide us with the tools to describe the most ineffable (the seemingly indescribable) experiences in life. This is one of the greatest challenges in our lives because I believe we need to put into words the moments that take our breath away. Such as the times we fell in love, or had our heart broken, watched a glorious sunset or a startling display of shooting stars, had someone close to us die, or experienced our home team win — or lose — an important game.

However, truth be told, as the poets say, words can also be a trap. All of us, from kids to adults to elders, sometimes use words we don’t mean, words that slip out, words we wish we could take back. For instance, in William Shakespeare’s famous play Hamlet, he has his hero, the prince of Denmark, reply to Polonius’ question about what he is reading by saying rather sarcastically, “Words, words, words.”

In other words, nothing but words, and meaningless ones at that.

Thus, we arrive at the strange paradox that plagues all of us who love language. Sometimes words are not enough, while other times they are too much. So how do we decide?

Rather than turn to another famous author here, I will defer to my beloved Grandma Dora, who once chided me for what she called “dithering around,” talking around what I was really trying to say. Then she paused and used one of the English proverbs she heard while growing up in Ottawa, Canada, “Philip, say what you mean and mean what you say.”

For me, that has proven to be one of the most beautiful descriptions I’ve ever heard of the ultimate value of words. They help us convey, carry, even construct meaning. At best, they guide us to learn what is significant and has value. And yet, as much as I believe in the many layers of meaning that language carries, I have come to understand that for many people there is even a deeper importance to the way we use words to communicate with each other. The right words spoken or written at the right moment can help us feel less alone. As I write this sentence, I can hear the impassioned voice of another favorite writer, the African American poet and novelist James Baldwin, who wrote:

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”

This is why we speak, write, listen, have soulful conversations. We need to reach out and tell each other — in stories and songs — what it feels like to be human.

Once, I visited a cave in Southern France, where my family, the Cousineaus, came from. Its walls were festooned with ancient paintings and small red handprints. Scientists now tell us the latter were probably stencils made by women and children. Other scholars have written about the labyrinth-like tunnels that were used to reach these caves and the fires that were lit for warmth and light so our earliest artists could create their beautiful work. As a word-lover, I enjoy knowing that the Latin word for fireplace or hearth is focus. There are many layers of sweet meaning in that two-syllable word. To me, it signifies the thousands of years that our ancestors gathered around fires to cook, gain warmth and light, and engage in one other beautiful human activity: conversation. The words we use with our friends and families and later our employers and even strangers when we move around the world reflect the way we focus, a reflection of what we pay attention to, what we care about. The words that helped our ancestors focus around the paleolithic fires, help us now around the symbolic fires of our theaters, cinemas, televisions, and handheld screens.

Words are also fun, which is as unexpectedly important a way to convey meaning as poetry, theory, or science. Think of the word klutz — doesn’t it make you smile when you pronounce it? Or mellifluous, an ancient Greek word that means “sweet as honey.” Doesn’t it look and sound sweet? Or one of my favorites since childhood, arachibutyrophobia, the strange and irrational fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth? This one might sound dumb or unnecessary, but life is chock full of odd fears and, as therapists are fond of saying, finding the right word to describe your fear means you’re halfway home. Then there is stridulation for the buzzing of cicadas, or horripilation, a fancy word to describe the hair that stands up on your head or arms.

If you are ever tempted to think that words may be important, but aren’t really powerful in the real world, consider what the French emperor Napoleon reputedly said, “I fear the pen of one poet more than a thousand cannon.” Or consider how tyrants like the Khmer Rouge banned some words they considered threatening when they brutally took power in Cambodia, in the mid-1970s, innocuous words such as love, comfort, happiness, radio, and beauty. Imagine that. Consider why anyone would bother banning words or entire books. Then consider the possibility that words and stories and movies matter because they convey ideas and ideas can and always have changed the world. Sometimes for the good, sometimes for ill.

I urge you to use the best possible words your heart can conjure now and always. I say this with a heavy heart because I will never forget the last letter my father ever wrote to me. He was only 56; I was only 32. I was working on my first book and my first documentary film and I thought for sure I had conveyed to him how much our reading together had impacted my life. By stocking our house with books, by subscribing to a dozen newspapers and magazines, by taking our family to the theater and the movies, and by buying old-fashioned records for us so we could listen to Elvis and the Beatles on our new family stereo. But in that final note to me he wrote something devastating: “Did my love of words influence you, son?”

Yes, he italicized the word influenced.

I wrote back immediately, by hand, telling him, “Yes, a thousand times yes, dad.”

But what I didn’t write was what I was really thinking, I’m sorry I wasn’t clearer about how much your passion for words, books, art, and travel set me on my path.

You see, sometimes we think we say or write what we’re feeling — but we leave something out, our deepest emotions. Often, it’s too late. Aways, that’s what words ultimately are for — if they are for anything — a way to communicate from our hearts and to other hearts and souls. Before it is too late.

“Zounds!” Shakespeare also wrote, in his play King John, “I was never so bethumped with words since I first called my brother’s father dad.” I hope you are laughing as you read this, then think about the Bard’s words, then laugh again. The best words are often the most surprising ones.

Phil Cousineau is a freelance writer who was born in South Carolina, raised in Detroit, lived in Europe, and now flourishes in San Francisco. He has published over 40 books, including the international best-sellers The Hero's Journey: The Life and Work of Joseph Campbell, The Art of Pilgrimage, and Wordcatcher. Cousineau has written over 25 documentary films, contributed to 75 other books, hosted and cowrote the PBS television series Global Spirit, and has been a featured guest on CNN, the BBC, Smithsonian Channel, and MajorLeagueBaseball.com. He lives with his wife and son on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco.