Humpty Dumpty on the meaning of words
From Through the Looking Glass

Like a small child loves playing with sand, I love playing with words. Which isn’t the same as having those words say what I mean. As such, this is one of my favorite quotes. Would that we all had Humpty Dumpty’s ability to make a word mean exactly, precisely and only just what we choose, all the time. Most of us are just not as gifted as that cantankerous and contrary old egg.

I’ve had occasion to think of this quote several times in the last few weeks.


I was having dinner with my friends Stephan, Uli, and Uli’s son Philip; I think AJ was away with his dad. Lady GaGa or Katy Perry or some other pop song came on, which led someone (coughcough) to say something like “Ah, but that’s not real music.”

Ah. “Real.” As opposed to what, fake music? Make-believe music? Hallucinatory music? Ok, so that last one actually could be applied to some songs. It was interesting to hear the kids’ perspective on the use of the word “real.” And of course, really, it was just an adjective shortcut for saying “music which I like and I think worth listening to.”

Score one for words. For reals, dude.


STITCHES East. Like the students, we the teachers enjoy a bit of socializing. And we often have serious discussions, but usually about industry-relevant topics, like the use of the word “more” to clarify total times to repeat increases, where to put no-stitch boxes in charts, and the difficulty knitters sometimes have wielding crochet hooks. Serious topics, those.

But last time we got on to a fairly contentious topic, leading us off in several directions, from general opinions to personal stories. Things got a little heated on-topic, and then turned into a discussion on the whole point of abstract arguments. Is such a discussion at all likely to change anyone’s view? If not, such discussions only stir the pot, and perhaps turn friends against one another. Participating, therefore, raises the possibility of losing friends; and that of course, brings fear. Stupid fear.

Fortunately, I think there are 3 things all of us share, regardless of diversity of age, color and creed, geographical location, marital status, Myers-Briggs type, and opinion on “real” music.

  1. A desire to become a better person.
  2. A realization that “better” must be self-defined.
  3. An ability not to judge others for having a different definition.

I can’t say I’d want to repeat that night’s discussion ever again. But because of the openness in the room at the end, and the respect and love for each other it revealed, I feel that much closer to my friends. Definitely a good trade-off.

So where does Humpty figure in all this? I thought of his words while going over what was said, thinking about words founded in generalities versus words based on specifics. Thinking about using speech to figure out what you think and believe, a variation on the Socratic method. And thinking about the power of words, those imprecise, willful creatures, spewing out of my mouth and causing trouble. Hmmm.


Warning signs in County Clare.
Warning signs in County Clare.

AJ’s homework this month included research and creation of a “culture kit,” a collection of 6 objects related to his cultural heritage. He decided to split it 50-50 between his father’s Greek and mother’s Irish ancestry. I pulled out old photographs of my push-bike tour of Ireland, travel guides, and maps, and tried to think of objects I had that represented Irish culture.

When I think “Irish,” I think music (visions of the unicorn, my mom set dancing in the kitchen, and later (much), having a Guinness in Boston and set/slamming in San Jose), and literature:

“…snow was general all over Ireland…”
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”
“If it was raining soup, the Irish would go out with forks.”

Words, of course, connect the two. One of the travel books contained a section titled “The Irish Way with Words.” The writer begins by discussing the decline of the Irish language within Ireland, and continues to discuss how the phrasing of it passed into the Irish use of English (e.g., the English “that is true” becoming “‘Tis true for you” or the colorful “There’s not a word of a lie in it.”). He goes on to say, about English (particularly English English): “For all its wit and elegance, it is too precise, too exact, too conscious, and above all, too lacking in the essentially subversive irreverence of the Irish way of thought. Anglo-Saxon precision is alien to the Irish mind, which would be more at home with Humpty Dumpty’s dictum: “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.””


* The complete passage from Through the Looking Glass, including Mr. Dumpty’s definition of “glory.” ;->

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