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

You can't say that

 Word count: 307                                   Reading time: 1-2 mins

Remuda – the word rolls off the tongue gently and sensually. Unless you’re a rider in North America, you may not know that it refers to the herd of horses from which ranch-hands choose their mount each day. I learned it after watching a video of the late, magnificent mare Whizard’s Baby Doll in a bridleless reining exhibition. That was a sad way to add to my vocabulary. Yet remuda is a word that will probably never make it into my fiction.

Years ago a friend gave me the book They Have a Word for It by Howard Rheingold. This gift has tortured me ever since. It offers a feast of delicious words that I can never use without sounding like a pretentious prat. I mean really – where would I use the Huron word orenda (the powerful voice that can be called upon to combat the blind forces of fate – the opposite of kismet)? While I think the Yiddish word berrieh (rhymes with dare ya) for an extraordinarily energetic, talented, and competent woman should be used daily to describe my remarkable friends, how many people would understand what I was talking about?

Some of the expressions like esprit de l’escalier and zeitgeist have come into more common usage since Rheingold penned his book in the 1980’s. Maybe in time some of my other favourites will be bantered about if not in conversation then in the written word. I can’t wait until we can finally say good-bye to the tired cliché, the elephant in the living room, and talk about getting down to the mokita of the situation.

Do you have words that slipped into your vocabulary because of some significant event in your life? Or have you come across words that you simply like a lot but know they are too esoteric to be used?


Photo by: YazolinoGirl