“The limits of my language means the limits of my world”
— Ludwig Wittgenstein
Words. They are my playthings and my daily companions. If that sounds weird, so be it! Do you ever wonder, gentle reader, how it came to be our human species learned to communicate with language? However it came about, words are a wondrous gift, allowing us to convey to one another insignificant chatter, as well as the deepest level of thought, emotion, insight. Of course, language is a complicated matter, especially for young children. Words can be misconstrued, as happened recently in our family.
Rob brought home a smoker and, as with any new toy, he wanted to use it immediately. It seemed a good idea to experiment with smoked fish, so he bought some whiting and whipped it into the smoker. It turned out perfectly. I served some in a dip when the family came to visit. The triplets, Anna, Elise and Juliet, were among our visitors that day. When Rob (AKA Bahbo to the grandchildren) offered them a taste of the smoked fish, they refused. They also gave him a strange look. Everyone else exclaimed over the depth of flavor in the smoked fish.
The girls’ mother, Jen, told us about an incident that happened a week or so later when she and the girls were out. Anna saw a “no smoking” sign and wondered why it was there since “Everybody already knows to not smoke.” Her mother explained that not all grown-ups followed good advice, and the sign was there so people would not smoke in that place. Anna was quiet for a while, then said, “But Bahbo smokes. He’s going to get sick and die!” Then all three girls burst into tears. Jen tried to reassure them about their grandfather’s good health and that he does not smoke. Anna was quick to argue that Bahbo “does so smoke” because he told everyone he smoked fish in a smoker. To the girls pipes and cigarettes are “smokers.” “And Bahbo was trying to get YOU to try his smoker too, and then you’ll get sick!” she exclaimed between tears. It took some time and a great deal of patient explanation to assure all three girls that no one in their family smoked and we were all healthy. Our son, Chris, the triplets father, also mentioned that the girls tried to stop him from buying smoked ham for the same reason.
This scenario can be seen on several levels. It’s easy to understand how 6-year-olds, who think of words in literal rather than figurative terms, could misunderstand what was happening when their grandfather talked about smoking fish in a smoker. Then there is their love and concern for their grandfather. Their words of concern clearly conveyed that love.
It’s also interesting to note how far our society has come in delegating smoking to its rightful place. When I was growing up my friends were eager to start smoking for a number of reasons, most of which has to do with taking up an adult activity to make them seem older, more mature and certainly more popular. The ad men used exactly the right words in putting forth this idea, which took root and grew quickly in immature minds. I agree with my favorite poet, Emily Dickinson, who has written, “I know nothing in the world that has as much power as words.”