A rose by any other name

Word count: 397                         Reading time: 1-2 minutes

The ancient walking tracks that crisscross Australia are sacred pathways that the indigenous people call songlines, dream lines, or dreaming tracks. The Aboriginal people believe that they must continually sing to the land to keep it alive. As they sing they walk, navigating thousands of kilometres with clues provided by traditional songs.

When the European settlers tried to force their culture, and more specifically their work ethic, on the local tribes, they didn’t anticipate the phenomena of the walkabout. To the Europeans, walkabout meant a time when their workers simply put down tools and disappeared. To the Aboriginal people it meant a focussed journey, to reconnect with the spirit-creators by following the tracks laid down at the start of time, during The Dreamtime or The Dreaming.

To clarify, for all the journalists and marketing people out there, going walkabout does not mean taking a pleasant stroll around a garden or park as suggested on the Vancouver Tourism website. Or should I say it didn’t used to mean that? It used to be a specific and respectful word that denoted a spiritual practice by people whose culture has been under attack for over two hundred years.

I accept that language is organic. In the 1964 movie A Hard Day’s Night, Simon Marshall (Kenneth Haigh) pushed some shirts at Beatle George Harrison and said, “Now you'll like these. You'll really "dig" them. They're "fab," and all the other pimply hyperboles.”

Those hyperboles, which had replaced superlatives like wacco, wizard, and smashing, were soon discarded in favour of hippie expressions like cool, groovy, outasight. Today awesome, amazing, epic, brilliant and sick are conferred on much-admired and coveted things. As I write this, I’m sure other superlatives are incubating. And that’s good; language should evolve and change. Each generation needs to leave its own stamp.

Still, I have trouble accepting walkabout in the meaningless way it’s tossed around lately. On the other hand, I probably use dozens of expressions that once meant something very different than they do now so I’m trying to be patient with this one. In time I may even forget that walkabout meant anything other than a stroll in the park.

As you craft your work do you stumble on words that have taken on new meaning in a way that irritates you? Or are there new words that delight you with their flexibility and mental images?


Photo: Alan Bolitho, LM

Words Fail Me

Word count: 218                  Reading time: 1 min.

Years ago, I saw the Bangarra Dance Theatre perform at the Theatre Royal in Sydney, Australia. The Aboriginal troupe performed Rations and Rush, pieces that explore the torturous path indigenous people have walked since the arrival of European settlers. Dancer Russell Page spoke of the agony and triumphs poignantly with his strong, lithe body. I left the theatre uplifted and saddened.

When I heard of Page’s suicide the very next morning, words failed me. Inexplicable, profound grief, for someone I’d never met, flooded over me. Ten years and one international move later, the program from that performance remains preserved on my bookshelf. The sorrow I felt that sunny winter morning is renewed whenever I remember Russell Page. I don’t claim to mourn him every day but his memory lives at the edge of my consciousness. The words to explain my feelings still escape me.

To paraphrase T.S. Elliot, it’s strange that words are so inadequate. Yet, like the asthmatic struggling for breath, so the writer must struggle for words. Or maybe, as the Bee Gees sang, “It’s only words and words are all I have.” Maybe I expect too much of them.

When have words failed you? What have you done to capture an elusive emotion you want to bring to the page or share with a friend?


Photo: Bear66