Words are trains for travelling past what really has no name, and other evocative phrases

If you wanted someone to explain to you that some things are hard to put in words, when explanation would be the more memorable:

  1. […] it is important to note that concepts are not necessarily objectively simple only because a simple word or expression exists for them. Many concepts which are exceedingly complex or difficult, or notoriously hard to define, are associated with very simple, short or plain words. This is very much dependent on culture or, properly, the language used.
  2. Words are trains for moving past what really has no name

The first is from the Wikipedia for circumlocution; the second is from a Prefab Sprout song, and gets my vote. It has an eloquence and memorability beyond what the words literally mean. (Sung, which is how its author intended it to be heard, it also has a combination of wistfulness and frustration that add to its impact.) I could bang on about perlocutionary acts (definition here) with a linguist’s litany of technical terminology, of course, but I suspect a song might be more evocative. And evocative is the word my train of thought started with – or more specifically, with Sherry Turkle’s book, Evocative Objects.

It’s an endearing book, compiled rather than written by the author of Alone Together (previously reviewed here) that pursues her professional interest in our relationship with objects and technology. (She is a Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, and Director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. Or, if you prefer a wittier definition, a woman who explores the rhetorical conundrum of “iPad, there I am”.)

In the book, a diverse group of humanists, scientists, artists and others each contribute an essay on something that has had a lasting evocative meaning to them – a cello, a 1964 Ford Falcon, a rolling pin, apples, an early synthesiser or a single dose of an anti-depressant. I might not have inspired you to read it, having given you such a literal summary, but it manages to be both delightful and thoughtful. (If you plotted it on a chart whose vertical and horizontal axes represented whimsy and a knotted brow, it would avoid all four possible extremes.)

One of its contributors, William J Mitchell, is transported – metaphorically at least – back to his Australian childhood by express trains. The Melbourne Express  (for him ‘my earliest intimation of the technological sublime’)  used to thunder through his childhood home of Horsham, Victoria. Trains were not just a means of literal travel (and eventually, a route to Melbourne University, where his professional life began), but a place of learning in themselves. It might not have been the railway company’s deliberate intention, but for the young William:

It was on a train, long before I was reluctantly dragged off to school, that I first realized I could read.”

The art of evoking memories in others being what it is, I naturally remembered that Prefab Sprout song as soon as I read that sentence. There are songs in his short essay, but the link to Prefab Sprout is my own: it’s what was evoked, and what made his essay the one I will remember.  The idea of trains, however, definitely stayed with Prof Mitchell when he was old enough to be at school, writing essays, where “I often thought of sentences as trains”. Or, as he goes on to write:

You could shunt the words around, like rolling stock on a siding, until you got them in exactly the right order. Like empty boxcars, they could carry the freight of simile and metaphor. And verbs, surely, were locomotives. Put them up front for snappy imperatives. Multiply, mass, and combine them for extra power. Keep it short. On the other hand, if the mood took you, and you wanted to construct a long, slow, freight-train of a sentence, with reflective asides in the manner of writers like Joseph Furphy, you could just let a few scattered verbs help it along from somewhere in the middle. Or, for a different effect, they might follow, pushing. When I memorized and recited poetry, like “The Wreck of the Hesperus” and “The Man from Snowy River” – the rhythms of the rails were always on my mind.”

A writer can admire that quoted section for the way each sentence is an example of the same way of using language that it describes, but that would be to admire it merely for being ‘clever’. At least for a while, I’ll think about Mitchell’s essay and about that metaphor of trains as I shunt words around in the metaphorical sidings of the computer screen. It’s not just clever writing, it’s memorable. It’s made me think about his points as part of ‘doing what I do’.

And I can’t help but think it – and the rest of the book – makes an important point about getting any message across. When we have something to say that we feel is important, and we want it to have an impact, many of us struggle to be clear. Or we worry about presenting the right image: being ‘on message’ is far too often more concerned with our self-centred worries about perlocution (the effect on the listener, for those who didn’t look up the definition!) than with the actual words. Despite all we know from surveys about people’s declining trust in politicians, the anxiety about ‘conveying the branding’ is sometimes more Downing Street that C-Suite.

That’s not to say that worrying about the effect on the listener is wrong. It isn’t, of course, although it’s possible to be almost neurotic about wanting to govern or control it. Once the message has left you – whether it be your lips, your keyboard, or the inky flight of your quill across the vellum – its interpretation is in the ear, eye or iPhone skin of the receiver. They might not hear, see or scroll through it as you intended.

But a message that sings out with a tin ear and no sense of ‘the rhythms of the rails’ might meet a sadder fate than disagreement. Pause for a couple of seconds to estimate how many books you’ve read, memos you’ve received and emails you’ve had over the years that you now have no memory of whatsoever. If you don’t want your noble intentions to be politely jettisoned at the next station, evoke something in the people you’re trying to get through.

Going about our day with our iPads to hand, we can – literally – touch your words (or we can just press ‘Delete’). Before you hit ‘Send’, think about whether your words can touch us.

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