Tuesday, February 10, 2004


Words. Just squiggly marks on paper (or on a computer screen) yet they have so much power.

Sitting bored in a fog-bound Jersey airport several years ago, I was at first irritated, then intrigued by the chuckles and guffaws coming from my colleague next to me, nose buried in a novel. Eventually I couldn’t stand it any longer and had to go and buy a copy of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” myself; before long we were both laughing out loud so much that an elderly (but I think young-at-heart) lady opposite came over, with a smile on her face, to ask what we were reading. Boredom transformed to laughter, all through words.

And again, more recently, sitting on a train reading "Captain Correlli’s Mandolin", I had to stop because I could no longer see the page clearly through the tears.

Such power to elicit emotional responses; to make us happy or sad or afraid or joyful or to feel we see inside the mind of another. Notice how thick books are? They use lots of words – lots and lots and lots of words all strung together. They say the same thing in different ways, they explain, they paint word-pictures, so that meaning is spread across many, many words and not just encapsulated in a single one.

Because therein lies a danger.

Single words like joy, sorrow, pain, love, happiness - on their own, what do they tell you? They can never be more than labels, a shorthand way to communicate something that is beyond words. And to try and do so in just one word.... How do you capture complex emotions like grief, fear, love, ecstasy in a thousand words, or ten thousand, let alone just one? How can one word contain the depth and breadth of human emotional experience? One-word labels are a painting in just primary colours.

Labels create expectations, tramlines for behaviour. “I am A therefore I should feel B”. Or “I feel X, therefore I should be doing Y”. And that can give rise to feelings of guilt that I don’t want to do Y, or that it seems out of place in the context of X. And I’d rather do Z but if I feel X then surely that’s wrong? All that confusion of intent and of feeling, just because a wordless experience sensed inside is given a label when it should have stood as something unique. And in the same way, labels give leverage for others to control us. “If you really loved me, you’d do X”.

Labels are constraining, they limit to what is acceptable within their bounds. Labels give rise to stuckness; an inability to move beyond the confines they define.

And perhaps most dangerous of all, labels can blind us to true feelings. The label creates a framework in our minds into which what we feel must be fitted; eventually only that part of the feeling which matches the framework makes it’s way into consciousness, and the truly felt experience fades away and we’re left with a hollow shell of false expectation that we feel obliged to fill. We mistake the feeling for the label, and are disappointed when we realise the shell is still empty, and the true feelings are lost. And so the opportunity to listen to the wisdom of our innermost selves passes us by. Yet outside the confines of the label may lie something unique and magical and powerfully alive.

How many people are there on this planet? How many distinct emotions do they each feel? Are any two truly the same? How many words are there in any one language? One-word labels can mask the uniqueness and wonder of every single one of us.

So use labels with care. Especially when applied to yourself. The alternative, of listening to the truth of your heart, is infinitely more empowering.

Back to current posts