Words have a power that goes beyond the arrangement of the letters and connects deep within our brains on a subconscious level. The meaning of a word isn’t just what the dictionary defines it as, but it’s also how our culture and our experience also tell us how to understand it. If you don’t believe me try shouting “fire” in a crowded space and watch the flight or fight reaction kick in.
With the English language it can be very difficult because the same word can apply to a number of very separate experiences or objects. So over the course of our evolution we have developed ways to try to avoid causing panic every time we use a word. With “fire” we’ve learned to use inflection, volume, context, and body language. That one word means we can ask someone whether they are cold and if we should light a fire, we can cause people to pull the trigger of a gun, we can cause a panic in a crowded space, and we can save lives. Or we can just be explaining what that warm thing is that we’re sitting beside. So in five different ways we have used just four letters to cause reactions and to describe experiences. Pretty neat huh? It would be if works only described actions or things on a basic level. Sadly, when we move into descriptive words that impact on us there is a huge margin for confusion and hurt.
Language can place us in situations where our understanding of a word is limited or coloured by our own experiences. Take the word “beautiful”. Beauty is a concept that means vastly different things to different people. To some it’s a physical characteristic, to others it can be spiritual or based on intelligence. A statue can be beautiful, a flower can be beautiful, a human can be beautiful, but so can an experience. There is always a positive quality to something being beautiful but even in the usage there are degrees. Would you say a rose is as beautiful as your partner, or that a sunny day is as beautiful as a kiss with someone you love? Our understanding of the word allows us to see the shades of beauty within an experience or object and differentiate.
The way in which we are able to differentiate will also be coloured not only by our own concepts of what is beautiful but also on how we internalize the word. How we see ourselves distorts the hearing of the word. The person who believes themselves to be ugly will not hear the word in the way a person who has it reinforced daily to them will. For the person who is lonely to be called beautiful may cause them to assume more is being said than is the truth. To the person who believes that they are beautiful it may be a confirmation and so is accepted lightly. In the end when we use the word it’s important to examine who is saying it, our past experience of how they use language, and what in ourselves is being triggered emotionally. We can also choose to look at a word and use it precisely and to say exactly what it describes.
The word beauty has obviously been applied in many ways over the centuries. Like a pendulum the concept of what physical beauty is has swung from one extreme to the other. Today the most prized form in the Western mind seems to be a woman so thin that she can no longer ovulate let alone conceive. How different the ideal was for Rubens and his generation. Over the years beards have been the hot ticket item, other times they have been repugnant. In the end when we look at the physical as the seat of beauty it becomes subject to the whims of fashion and restricted to the few. So to be beautiful is and meaningless as tissue paper and about as lasting.
It would be better, perhaps, to look back through the mists of time and seek out other ideas of what it means to be beautiful. The word “hōraios”, Koine Greek for “of the hour”, makes more sense for the concept we’re trying to define. To be of the hour was not to have a nicer nose or bigger pair of breasts, instead it was to be perfect in and of oneself. The peach that was at perfect ripeness was beautiful, the person who acts true to himself is beautiful. The old woman who dresses and behaves like a teenager, however, is not beautiful. They are a travesty of their true self. That idea of being in balance and of one’s true nature seems a far better concept of beauty than looking purely on the outer form.
For myself, beautiful has become a word that is reserved only for special occasions and in a very particular context. Beautiful, for me it is literally an expression that someone is beauty-full. For me, it’s become a reflection of the internal nature of a human rather than the external. I allows me to reflect and acknowledge that a person is full of beauty on a spiritual and intellectual level, as well as on the physical perfection I see in them. In effect it has become the highest honour that I can give to another human being, saying “I see the triple beauty of your mind, your spirit, and your form and reflect that back to you.” It’s not a come on or a lustful thought for the physical form but a reflection back to the person of how I see them as complete. I see them as beautiful and I want them to themselves as the same.
The people who truly know me, know this, and though occasionally there is confusion it has usually come from the other person not thinking about who I am or caring about what I am trying to say. They hear the internal voices of their own needs and prejudices and reflect those sadly outward. Just as body dysmorphia is a reflection of our internal view of the external so we can do the same with the words we hear that describe our spirit. Therein lies the tragedy.
If you think that this is over thinking a word then consider this. The word “nice” originally meant something very different to what it does today. Traced back it’s roots are in the early French from the Latin. Literally the translation of the Latin “nescius” is “not to know”. To be nice was to be foolish or ignorant. So the question becomes would you prefer me to call you a nice person or a beautiful one?