On words

Words define our world. Arbitrarily. The sign is not the object. Why a tree is not called ‘glass’? What would happen if we start calling ‘diarrhea’ what we now define ‘love’? Would we suffer from an incontinence of the heart? Certainly we would live in the world of Wordplay, an episode from the (genial) The Twilight Zone.

Words define our perception of symbols. The moon is feminine, the sun is masculine in our mythological imagery. Not in German. ‘Der Mond’, the moon, is grammatically masculine and ‘Die Sonne’, the sun, is feminine. Do German men follow the monthly cycle of the moon? If translation generates gender fluidity, it’s clear why ‘Das Mädchen’, the girl, in a transitory state between puberty and adulthood, is grammatically neutral in the language of Siegfried.

You cross the Alps (beyond Germany), and the symbolic sea of the maternal womb is re-established: in French, ‘la mer’, the sea, and ‘la mère’, the mother, are pronounced identical, in a unisonous vibration, like a rolling umbilical cord.

Divorcing in English is a direct separation from an object. ‘To divorce’ is a transitive verb, followed by a direct object. You leave your partner in the same way as you leave your keys on the coffee table. ‘Divorziare’ in Italian is intransitive, followed by ‘from’, a preposition of movement: Italians divorce ‘from’ their spouses, it’s a departure. Divorcing in Italian has the taste of traveling adventures.

In Italian, most words ending in -a are feminine, in -o are masculine. Of course, there are exceptions. Among others, a group of words of Greek origin ending in -ma are masculine. ‘Il programma’, the program, ‘il tema’, the theme. ‘Il problema’, the problem. It seems natural, in my feminist trained brain, that ‘problem’ is masculine.

Words resonate. Literally. I feel the rugged skin of the ‘crocodile’ in the consonantal clash of the first two hard syllables – croco. I imagine the subtle, sneaky sliding of its body on the grass in the long, soft ‘tail’ of its noun – dile. Wings flap in harmony, delicately in the elongated double ‘l’ sound of  ‘farfalla’ and ‘libellula’, the Italian correspondents of ‘butterfly’ and ‘dragonfly’. Poetic bugs. Distant relatives of the English insects – morphing between a hideous pest (fly), a fire-spitting epic monster, and a cholesterol enhancing ingredient.

‘Knife’ seems sharp and fast when you say it. Its Italian translation, ‘coltello’, in the assonance with ‘farfalla’, may only be able to touch the skin, without penetration. Bladed virginity.

In Italian, ‘to take a picture’ is an act of doing, a construction of identity, ‘fare una fotografia’, to make a picture. As if that ‘magic lantern’ could capture your soul for real. Forever blocked in a ghastly daguerrotype. Like Jack Torrance in the finale of Kubrick’s The Shining. 

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”, Torrance’s infinite repetition in the typewriter, prelude to his madness. Crazy for words.




  1. Gregg Hyder · · Reply

    Loved it. Consider doing a podcast.

  2. The French, as well, make or do their photographs, rather than take them. We, here, are cruder. Similarly, there is a great difference between asking someone, “please”, and asking if it you pleases. Or, as David Byrne famously asked about a certain psycho killer: “What is it that it is?”

  3. Thanks for the comment, Everydayispoetry!

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