As Hanukkah ends today and the Christmas season is now upon us, I am reminded yet again how much words matter. And I am not referring to that useless criticism that some Christians make when folks, with open and joyful hearts, send cards or tell others, “happy holidays.”
What better way to refer to these Holy days of Hanukkah and Christmas than with a word with the root of “holy”? I personally love it when one of my students or colleagues cheerfully wishes me “happy holidays.”
How is it that we downgrade perfectly good words and make them second-class citizens, simply because we have heard some talk radio lunatic or some talking head on television fill up the air waves with nonsense?
We then mimic what we have heard, much like a talking parrot. At such times we seem unable to think things through for ourselves. Words matter, dear student.
Yes, they do. And I cherish those writers who can choose just the right word or place words together in just the right juxtaposition to create magic on a page.
Wendell Berry can do that. Jane Austen perfected the art. Charles Dickens still has the power to make me laugh while reading one page, or make my spirit soar while reading another.
Trollope follows close behind. Still the best writer of history I know was the non-academic, Barbara Tuchman. The best memoir I’ve ever read is “The Tender Bar” by J. R. Moehringer, but Thomas Merton’s “The Seven Storey Mountain” follows close behind.
No two writers were more eloquent or more convincing than Harry Caudill and James Still when writing about their beloved eastern Kentucky mountains.
No one has brought Kentucky history to life better than the late Thomas D. Clark or the State Historian, James C. Klotter. In Kentucky poetry, my pick is Davis McCombs although he now writes out of Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Norman Maclean did not begin to publish words on a page until he reached his 70s and even then he used words sparingly, writing essays or “novelettes,” rather than long novels.
His most famous piece ends with this: “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time.
“On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.” It is hard to find a more moving passage of literature.
Ernest Hemingway could move readers by using words as bare bones. Someone asked Hemingway if he could write a novel with only six words. This was the great writer’s offering: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”
And so students, I write this column now for you, to encourage you to use your words carefully as you write on the pages of your blue books for your final examinations.
Think about what you write. Do not write gibberish. Prepare beforehand. Organize. Proofread by reading the words you put down back to yourself.
Even a very few words, placed correctly on a page, can reveal a whole universe of love or care or longing or – and this is especially important to your professors – understanding. And that is why at Christmastime, I think of words. For even the Christ child was described as “the Word.”
St. John opens his Gospel with these poignant words about the Word: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
And then later in verse 14: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”
And so, the apostle used words sparingly to present the Gospel story for which Christians all over the world celebrate Christmas.
Only a few words about the Word. Full of grace and truth. Best wishes on your final examinations. And happy holidays.
Column by Duane Bolin, professor of history