Words are interesting things. Not just their literal or even metaphorical meaning, but the emotional packages which accompany them.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
Humpty Dumpty had it nailed: the issue is which is to be the master. Is the word to be taken at its face value – its dictionary definition – or does the accompanying emotional baggage over-ride any logical reasoning and define and control the listener’s reaction.
And it is usually a reaction, not a response. Responses are considered, they are rational, and are the end result of a series of options based on thoughtful reflection. Reactions are knee-jerk actions over which the listener has no control; the control is with the deliverer of the message, not with the recipient. The Holy Trinity of ‘father (cause), ‘son’ (effect), Instant Knockout and ‘Holy Ghost’ (the process linking the two) is self-contained: it begins with the originator of the message and ends with the provoked reaction. Responses, on the other hand, start with the originator and then sit and simmer, as the multitude of possible effects are considered, compared, weighed, and calibrated; the response kick-starts another round of the Trinity.
The sound of the word itself determines the reaction. The listener receives the sound and the specific vibration frequency immediately triggers the reaction. With responses, the implications of the word determine the response. As Eileen Day McKusick describes it,
“It’s not about the words anyway. It’s about the underlying vibrational patterning, the tone, the subjective inner electromagnetic experience that is your perception, that we seek to understand.” (Tuning the Human Biofield: Healing with Vibrational Sound Therapy, 2014, Inner Traditions / Bear & Co.)
And before anyone thinks I’m going down the road of rhythmic Gregorian chanting to banish my particular demons, Ms. McKusick does not advocate it for cancer therapy.
Which introduces the first of my problem words: cancer. The big C.
Simply put, it’s an abnormally rapid multiplication of body cells. Because the replication is fast, too fast, the associated DNA becomes damaged and, as the replication continues the damage spreads. Imagine cutting your finger but the cut had a built-in characteristic of duplication. The cut copies itself, over and over again. That’s my best analogy.
Simply saying the word does provoke a reaction in most people; they physically and mentally shy away from it, but at least they do acknowledge its existence, even if they have difficulty repeating it back to you. And exist it does. Cancer is coming to a theater near you, sometime or other.
What I’ve found over the past few weeks though is that cancer is not the worst word in the medical lexicon. That status is reserved for cancer’s nemesis, chemotherapy.
Say it to yourself: che-mo-ther-a-py.
Splitting it into syllabic portions allows you to speculate and fantasize in all sorts of esoteric manner: che could derive from chi, the universal life-force; mother needs little explanation except as the nurturer of life; and py is obviously a misspelled evolution of pi, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, a never-ending irrational number, just like the uncontrollable multiplication of the malignant cells. Circles have always been used as a symbolic representation of the Universe, so the serpent bites its own tail, utters a surprised yelp, convulses, and it all starts all over again.
Most people can hold your gaze when you say chemotherapy, some involuntarily shy away, but even for the holders it’s a forced, “I must not betray my true feelings” fix. The barriers, firewalls and other protections people put in place enable them to at least not flinch too much when cancer is mentioned, but chemotherapy is akin to He Who Must Not Be Named. It used to be cancer, didn’t it? Maybe 20 or 30 years ago, but now everyone knows someone who has had, or is in the process of having cancer. People have to deal with the word; they have no choice. The specter of Voldemort has transferred to chemotherapy. It is a force of evil and contains its own legion of Death-Eaters. Many people literally understand it as a euphemism for death-sentence. Their immediate reaction is, “Oh, you poor thing.” It’s like you’ve reported,
“My leg fell off during the night and I can’t find any way of sticking it back on.”
“Oh, you poor thing.”
It’s a useless response.
And it doesn’t gel with the facts. Cancer survival rates (at least five years) are on the up and up all the time. Admittedly, for some types they are still pretty abysmal – skin cancer survival rates are below 10% and thyroid cancer below 2%. Of the popularly published ones, prostate cancer has the dubious bottom of the table ranking with 1.1%, but lung, liver, and esophageal cancers clamor for leadership in the 80+ percentage range. The league leader is pancreatic cancer which recently sat at an impressive 92.3%.
So, of course, the diagnosis of cancer could be a death-warrant, but so could walking down stairs, tripping over the cat, or driving in Bali or Mumbai. No one is immune from the Grim Reaper. Nor ever will be. But to watch people’s reaction to the C words it seems they cling to an irrational tendency to grasp at the straws of immortality, at least for themselves and for those whom they hold dear. People outside those circles fall into the, “Oh, you poor thing,” area of the Venn diagram.
So what is it with words? Why does one word – Voldemort – stoke fear, even dread, into the hearts of mankind while another word – kitten springs to mind – promotes warm, fuzzy feelings?
“In the beginning was the Word.” Famous words indeed. If you strike a tuning fork and stand it on a tray of iron filings, the filings will redistribute themselves into beautifully patterned shapes. Change the pitch of the tuning fork and the pattern made by the iron filings changes. The sound of the tuning fork is what we hear when the energy waves make contact with our eardrum, but the vibration of energy – the ‘jiggling’ of Richard Feynman fame – spreading across and through the tiny filings reconfigures their relationship with each other and they conform to spectacular and beautiful patterns. The frequency of vibration determines the pattern. If iron filings could ‘hear’, the pattern caused by the vibration would be determined by the ‘sound’.
Imagine yourself right back at the beginning of the Universe. Not a lot going on. To all appearances, nada, zilch. Apparently a boring void. All of a sudden the opposing yin and yang tug o’ war slips its handcuffs and an almighty energy vibrates across the void (That’s almighty, not Almighty). If the Universe had ears it would have been a sound, but it didn’t. We, however, writing about it billions of years later ascribe human characteristics and call it “a Word”. It’s the same thing. It’s a wave of energy. Everything is wave-producing, jiggling energy. The iron filings of the Universal ether are pulled into a reconfigured pattern which sets the scene for billions of years of evolutionary change.
The material – the iron filings – stay the same but the patterns change as the vibrations ebb and flow. Stars are formed. Planets break off and cool. Forests, oceans, mollusks, coelacanths, bees, pet rocks, and eventually humans. All formed from the same ‘iron filings’ which ‘heard’ the first ‘Word’. It’s innovation at its very finest. As Matt Ridley says when describing Darwin’s theory of natural selection, in The Evolution of Everything, “… the differential replication of competing creatures would produce cumulative complexity that fitted form to function without anybody ever comprehending the rationale in a mind.” In other words, it wasn’t planned. It just happened through a unique and serendipitous combination of circumstances. It evolved.
Other sages have made their own descriptions to illustrate the originality of our construct: Carl Sagan, “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch you must first create the universe.” Even Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young reminded us that “We are all stardust.” (Woodstock, written by Joni Mitchell in 1969, but more famously performed by CSN&Y).
Of all the people who I think had it wrong, I’m going to pick on Shakespeare. That’s highly unusual for me because he had most things so right that it’s a scary thought. “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet.” Really? I think he was being sarcastic, or maybe I need to read the play more thoroughly (or even thoroughly) and find counter-arguments.
I’d rather go with Lewis Carroll:
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
So, which is to be the master? Cancer, chemotherapy or cumulative consequences? I’ll go with cumulative consequences and the Devil tak’ the hindmost. It is what it is. It will be what it will be. And so far, so good.