The words we use shape our perceptions and our interactions with the world. Through words we are taught to label the myriads of stimuli that enter our sensory portals. Our parents, schools, and society at large shape our concepts of who we are, how we experience others, and how we express ourselves – often without their or our awareness that this shaping is occurring. Religious and governmental institutions and the media deliberately emphasize words to shape our beliefs – for their own purposes and benefits. The words and labels we learn to use come to identify who we are, what we do, how we do it, and how we relate to each other individually and collectively, and how we interact with to the environment.
We take our perceptions of the world for granted because our family, friends, and nation validate our perceptions by consensual agreement. It rarely occurs to us that there are many other ways to perceive the very same world we inhabit, and even more ways to interpret the perceptions and to act on them.
Having lived in Israel for four years as a child and for six as an adult, in England for nearly ten years, and in many parts of the US for the rest of my sixty-three years on this planet, I have a keen sense of different words that indicate differences in ways of dealing with the world. I have often wondered why some of the rich, warm and juicy expressions in other languages have not enriched my native tongue of American English.
For instance, I'm surprised we have no equivalent of "Bon appetite" (French) or "B'tay-avon" (Hebrew) – friendly acknowledgements of shared repasts. "Happy appetite," "Good appetite" or "Have a good meal" just don't seem to ring as warmly. Perhaps it's because we're largely a nation of fast food dining and don't really care about the quality of what we're eating, as long as it's cheap and served without too long a wait.
Chutzpah (ch = gutteral sound, as in clearing the throat prior to spitting) is a juicy term from Hebrew that has no adequate equivalent in English. It's somewhere in the range between spunk and gall, perhaps better explained by example than by other terms, as in this apocryphal story: A man who killed his parents had the chutzpah to plead for mercy from the judge because he was an orphan.
British English can be a foreign language to an American. Living for close to ten years in England, I never found explanations for why they chose torch for flashlight; bonnet for the hood of a car, boot for the trunk; spanner for the tool we identify as a wrench; nappies for diapers; and keep your pecker up for "cheer up" or "be of good cheer." Of greater import, in Britain and the rest of Europe, a summer holiday isn't just an elective trip to the shore or to a foreign destination, as it would be in the US. A holiday is a sacred annual ritual, never to be ignored or neglected. There is almost nothing that will have a higher priority in planning and budgeting than the summer holiday. This is a time for the family to be together, to have spirits refreshed and regenerated. It is an excellent form of relaxation therapy.
Words are manipulated for political effects. The people who hijacked four planes on 9-11 are terrorists in America, but are martyrs in parts of the Muslim world.
I've been delighted to find a marvelous collection of juicy and spicy words from many cultures that have no equivalent in other languages (Moore 2004).
Language can bias us towards accepting certain beliefs and rejecting others – without our awareness that we are being propagandized.
"Reasonable" suggests that reasoned thinking is a preferable way of arriving at decisions and dealing with challenges – elevating linear, mental analysis of problems to a preferred status over feeling or intuiting our way through them.
"Nonsense" and "immaterial" bias us to disregard, dismiss, or di
sparage intuitive, psychic, and spiritual awarenesses that are based on inner knowing rather than on outer, sensory awareness.
Sometimes a new word or phrase is particularly apt in describing something you might encounter but not identify until someone points it out.
Have you encountered people with "expanding hatbanditis" (Haack 2001) or "shoulder repetitive injury syndrome"? The first comes from a swollen ego, the second from patting themselves on the back too much.
Pattern recognition is a gift that has not had much acknowledgment, although it has been touched on in studies of creativity and intuition. This is the ability to grasp relationships between a spectrum of details, finding relationships between them that can be helpful. This has been invaluable to me as a therapist, identifying meaningful patterns in what my clients present about their relationships between symptoms, old hurts, fears, wishes, dreams, and relationships. It is a great help in research as well.
Habitual use of words may focus emotional tensions into parts of our body without our realizing it. Repeating phrases such as "What a pain in the neck this is!” or “I’m swallowing down about all I can manage!" may predispose us to neck and headaches or to stomach and bowel problems (Benor 2004, 2005).
Benor, Daniel J. Healing Research, Volume II: (Popular edition), How Can I Heal What Hurts? Wholistic Healing and Bioenergies, Medford, NJ: Wholistic Healing Publications 2005
Benor, Daniel J. Healing Research, Volume II: (Professional edition), Consciousness, Bioenergy and Healing, Medford, NJ: Wholistic Healing Publications 2004 ("Book of the Year" award - The Scientific and Medical Network www.datadiwan.de/SciMedNet/11.htm)
Haack, Merry. personal communication 2001.
Moore, Christopher J. In Other Words: A language lover’s guide to the most intriguing words around the world, New York: Levenger/ Walker & Co. 2004
*An expanded version of this article appears in Benor, DJ, In a Word, International J of Healing and Caring – On Line, www.ijhc.org January, 2001, 1-8.
(Continued in next column)