Words for beginners



Ex. 1: torture.

Today, class, we will look at a word that is not complicated. Our friends at the Oxford English Dictionary help us get started:

1.a. The infliction of severe bodily pain, as punishment or a means of persuasion.

Wait, some part of that wasn’t clear? Then let’s follow the OED on to the second, more fully elaborated explanation.

2.a. Severe or excruciating pain or suffering (of body or mind); anguish, agony, torment; the infliction of such.

Not clear yet? Here is a third definition, maybe one uncomfortably closer to home.

3. Severe pressure; violent perversion or ‘wresting’; violent action or operation; severe testing or examination.

Torture is deliberately inflicting pain on another person incapable of defending her- or himself.

I want to suggest that those in power—in the justice system, every governmental agency, and the media—get themselves a good dictionary before pronouncing on what is or isn’t torture.

Words mean something. And what words mean is more than meaning in the sense of definitional equivalency. Words mean actions, too. Every noun can become a verb, especially in the hands of those with power, for whom language itself can be an instrument of torture.

When we refuse to acknowledge that language has meaning, that words are as real as the cup on the desk or the bullet in the gun, we’re pulling up the substrate of all civilized organization. All of it, every bit. Orwell knew this, but he didn’t invent it. The ancients understood this long ago, and in the 17th century, Francis Bacon did, too.

In one of his most famous essays, Bacon lobs this at the reader:

“What is truth?” said jesting Pilate, and did not stay for an answer.

Ours is an era of cynical, jesting Pilates (no, that’s not a new exercise program), an age given to the “violent perversion or ‘wresting’” of language to which the OED’s definition of torture alerts us. Not coincidentally, an early cite for torture meaning linguistic violence is Bacon’s Advancement of Learning (1605).

Our 21st-century tech advancements would please Bacon, and probably dazzle him less than we might flatter ourselves into thinking. I suspect he would be, sadly, even less surprised by the violent perversion of language that often passes for judgment in our own time.

Because torture has emerged as a term one can use without a meaning of its own, something to be conveniently defined and redefined at will.

Two reflections on torture and difficulty. First this: the pianist Artur Schnabel is credited with the bon mot that playing Mozart is too easy for children and too difficult for adults. Maybe that’s the only point of connection between the greatest of Enlightenment composers and the darkest word we have for unenlightenment. Torture isn’t difficult for children to understand. It’s us adults who have trouble getting it.

And then from Mozart’s hope to Samuel Beckett’s profound understanding of our moment.

At the end of the short story “Dante and the Lobster,” Belacqua Shuah arrives at the home of his aunt with a parcel containing a live lobster, which will be boiled for his meal. Belacqua’s reflection on the impending death of the lobster is self-consoling and instrumental. He, of course, will have a tasty dinner. The lobster’s necessary death, Belacqua tells himself, will be quick.

Quick? The narrator’s voice delivers the story’s last line: “It is not.”

It’s one of the great refusals in modern literature.

A scholarly generation ago, Elaine Scarry’s groundbreaking The Body in Pain gave voice to the language of languagelessness, which is the realm into which torture leads the tortured. The refusal to understand what torture means says more: It declares that the act of torture moves the torturer into the realm of languagelessness, too. To torture is to refuse language, just as to be tortured is to be refused language.

There are many complicated words and complicated things, but torture is, finally, a simple word and a simple thing.

And yet there are those who believe that torture can mean whatever one wants it to mean—ergo, that it is possible to torture people appropriately.

It is not.