We had a long drive to the Portland airport this week so I asked the (teenaged) kids, “Who wants to listen to Hank the Cowdog”? They all said yes, which you might think is strange unless you’ve ever listened to Hank. He was a road trip staple back in the days when our kids were the "appropriate age" for stories about a couple ranch dogs in Texas. But Hank and his sidekick, Drover, have a way with words and communication that will bust you up, no matter your age. I mean, if you have a sense of humor.
If you’re only serious and not silly, you will not appreciate Hank the Cowdog.
If you don’t love dogs and their personalities, you won’t like Hank the Cowdog.
If you can’t appreciate humor that is funny on the basic level of an 8 year old, but even funnier as you get older and can better understand the plays on words, the malapropisms that lead to hilarious miscommunications, and the shenanigans of a dog who thinks he’s in charge and his sidekick who has the actual brains, you won’t appreciate Hank the Cowdog.
We can laugh at two fictional dogs who create disasters because of their misuse of words, but in real life it’s not always funny. Usually it's just frustrating.
I love Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein and Cervantes and Shakespeare. I love the way they use words to make me think and laugh. I love Madeleine L'Engle and Flannery O'Connor and GK Chesterton and CS Lewis and Walter Wangerin. I love words, but I am not widely read. I tend to stick with what I know and my To Be Read list is longer than it is reasonable. But I love words. I love the Word and how it always reveals my need and its fulfillment.
The gift of words and of naming things may be the greatest power God has given us, and we rarely treat the business of communicating like the dangerous endeavor it really is.
"I never knew words could be so confusing," Milo said to Tock as he bent down to scratch the dog's ear.
"Only when you use a lot to say a little," answered Tock.
Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth
Words are important—how we read them, speak them, hear them and write them tells a lot about who we are and what we want. Our choice of words can be calculated or careless. Our selective hearing can be the same, and extreme filtering is an exhausting way to cope with the fear of being manipulated by what we hear or misunderstood by what we say, but it seems like that filter is necessary.
Also necessary is an ability to identify satire, to separate it out from fake news, and to keep our common sense about the things we read and hear.
I’m not at peace with the thought that another country could so easily manipulate our thoughts, that our brains have become so liquid that to turn us is as easy as starting a bogus website and posting ridiculous ads. And just when I’ve pointed my finger at how ignorant “they” are (the people who allow themselves to be manipulated by fake news and social media) my eye is caught by that ad or that link or the lure of having a box on my doorstep with free, 2-day shipping.
My own actions are manipulated; I'm sure my thoughts have been, too.
Like Adam naming the animals as God brought them to him, we need words to name things and ideas, to have thoughts and make discoveries, and especially to communicate all those things to others. I don't always have something to say, but I always have something to think about. I need the corresponding words and the time to formulate them.
I fear I use too many words to say too little, or too few words to communicate too much.
Madeleine L’Engle says, “We do think in words, and the fewer words we know, the more restricted our thoughts. As our vocabulary expands, so does our power to think.” This makes me want to know more words and to have the confidence to name the things God brings to my life.
If our power to think is only as strong as our words, then this really is dangerous business, indeed.
We picked up our daughter from the airport. She’s spent two months with people for whom english is a second language and we were giving her a hard time on the way home for the funny word order and gestures she’s picked up from people who speak multiple languages and have so many words to file through. So many more words than us.
We were talking about word order and the work of translation and how the verb often comes last in other languages, and I realized that the person who is the hardest for me to communicate with (a real, actual person) is struggling to put their words in the proper order. They are thinking faster than they’re speaking, and speaking as they are thinking, rather than arranging the words into proper order and bringing me into the context with them. I often know what this person means, but it is a work of translation. It’s tiring and frustrating.
Is it a work I’m willing to keep at? I think so; yes.
Part of this work, for me, is writing.
You know how when you get a new car, all of a sudden everyone has that car? The past few weeks I’ve written a dozen different versions of this post as I have been praying about my own use of words and our society’s potential downfall because of words (too dramatic?). As I’ve been thinking about all this, everyone else has been writing actual words about it, and they’ve done it better.
There is a lot to say about words. Here are a few essays you really should read:
Why Our Words Matter, by Kimberly Coyle
Little Words That Make All the Difference, by Tim Challies