English Words and Their Background

By George H. McKnight | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XVI
FIGURES OF SIMILARITY

"They that dally nicely with words may quickly make them wanton" is the opinion of Viola as expressed to the Clown in "Twelfth Night." Certainly the shifts in meaning undergone by words in popular use exhibit a bewildering variety which makes it appear that words are the playthings of chance. Is it possible to discover anything like law and order in the midst of this seeming wantonness?

Any search for governing principles in language must be guided by the consideration that speech is the external body of which the soul is thought. "A thought," says a recent Irish writer, "is a real thing, and words are only its raiment, but a thought is as shy as a virgin; unless it is fittingly appareled, we may not look on its shadowy nakedness; it will fly from us and only return. again in the darkness, crying in a thin, childish voice which we may not comprehend until, with aching minds listening and divining, we at last fashion for it those symbols which are its protection and its banner."1 The idea expressed here in such poetic manner, finds more literal expression in the words of the psychologist, Wundt. "Human speech and human thought are everywhere coincident. . . . The development of human consciousness includes in itself the development of modes of expression. Language is an essential element of the function of thinking." Whether, then, we follow the poet or the scientist, we must conclude that the laws of language are to be sought in the laws of mind.

____________________
1
James Stephens, The Crock of Gold, p. 49.

-217-

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