by Charles Bliss
There seems to be a certain impulse or imperative compelling the human subject: to assign personalities or personality traits to inanimate things. To put it another way, we construct and allocate meaning to meaningless objects in the world via language. But this discussion focuses on the peculiar practice of treating objects or ideas in the world as though they were in some way human, like us, or otherwise possess some meaning which exceeds their immediate function. We do it in any number of ways: the pronouns we allocate to countries and ships, the names we give our cars, three is a magic number, eight is lucky, and so on.
But the reverse is also true: signs have been seen to determine our personalities. It’s ubiquitous, from the Chinese calendar to Zodiacal constellations. These dictate our belief that the time we are born correlates with an astrological sign, the dimensions of temporality manifested in these symbols governing our characterological makeup.
Or how when you meet someone you might say, “Nice to know you Bill, but I figured you for more of a Zane.” Our name precedes our personality, so why do we assume we can tell so much from a person’s forename? It could be as blunt as Dickens, or Cruella De Vil, or something subtler you can’t put your finger on – either way, why do essentially meaningless signifiers such as a name seem to have a determinate effect on our personality? And yet, there’s proof to suggest that we believe it does.
Humanity has always attempted to straitjacket experience and meaning with symbols. To quote Aldous Huxley in his brilliant essay, ‘Heaven and Hell’, “we are for ever attempting to convert things into signs for the more intelligible abstractions of our own invention.”
Not only do we convert into signs, we convert these conversions again into the ever more intelligible abstraction, the most intelligible abstraction we can fathom: ourselves. The urge to anthropomorphise is to retain a sense of relativity, to reframe essentially meaningless signifiers through the lens of human empathy, experience and understanding.
But there is a colonising aspect here too. By determining our favourite words, or colours, by the primordial act of naming itself, we engage in possession. Because we have transferred a part of our personality, experience or understanding onto those objects we name, projected onto them, we conquer them in the process. It’s as if we’ve stuck a flag into virgin territory with our personal emblem embossed on it, like any marauding power. You are what I say you are because I’m here to interpret you. Your favourite word, or number, or colour—they become your pets – or prisoners.
Another way of looking at this impulse is considering it as a synæsthetic compulsion. Synæsthesia is a kind of cross-wiring between sensory inputs, where pathways in the brain get confused and the perception of numbers can summon colours, hearing of sound can stimulate olfactory organs and so forth.
Neurologist V.S. Ramachandran claims that we’re all a little synæsthetic in a way, because we automatically assign phonetic frequencies to certain alien symbols and collectively agree upon a universal sound that we would expect to be applied to them. Check out his A Brief Tour of the Human Consciousness or his TED Talks lecture, 3 Clues to Understanding Your Brain. In his lecture, he claims that artists, poets and other creatively-minded people are more susceptible to synæsthesia, or are more commonly diagnosed with the defect, because they link otherwise non-relatable concepts. He says that the proof of this is in lateral thinking—how a poet uses a metaphor or simile and draw correlations between seemingly non-connected things.
This is what we do by assigning personality to symbols or signifiers. We unconsciously link the shapes of these signifiers with personality traits that don’t really exist, that aren’t really embedded in the symbol. For me, Number 5 always had an ulterior motive. In my mind’s eye, he’s the doppelganger in a film noir lurking in the chiaroscuro shadows. There is no rational explanation for why this appears so to me, why the number would summon antagonism. That’s just how it is weaved in the fabric of my consciousness.
Neither animate nor inanimate, we vitalise these abstract forms like Dr Frankenstein, until they become saturated with more meaning or personality or emotional capacity than they actually possess.
I can’t help but recall J.D. Salinger’s famous line from ‘Teddy’, when a character claims, “Poets are always taking the weather so personally. They’re always sticking their emotions in things that have no emotions.”
Maybe we’re all poets in a sense, taking symbols too personally, sticking emotions in things that have no emotions. Maybe we’re all synæsthetes too. If you do feel the urge to name your car Mandy, or if you think 3 really is a magic number, you’re cross wiring meanings in the world in the same way a sensual synæsthete might confuse sound and colour.
What follows is an exercise in word-personalities. These examples, perhaps a little schematic and idiosyncratic in their relativity to the writer, nevertheless provide a departure point as any in an exploration of the ambiguous shifting connections between words, subjects, and speakers.
This is, without a doubt, my favourite exclamatory remark. I have a crush on this word. Originally/traditionally, it is spelt whoa and was used as a command (as to a draft animal, typically a horse) to stand still, slow down, or calm down. It has also been utilised as a word that means to cease or slow a course of action or a line of thought, to pause to consider or reconsider. These days, however, it is primarily used to express a strong reaction of alarm or astonishment. This is the version of it I like best.
The spelling is open to debate because it is so spectacularly phonetic. It’s an almost onomatopoetic word, yet not quite.
It just seems to possess this crazy expressionistic intensity for me, which is a paradox really, because the sound of it out loud and the meaning of it work so well to carry the sense of surprise it is meant to convey.
The word whoah borders on the ineffable because it’s used when you can’t find words to describe something. It’s a rather nonsensical sounding word. But it seems to stand up on its own, like how you hear people say things like, “I was like ‘whoaaaah’”. Phrases like this are kinda meaningless, how do people even understand this? I’m thinking it’s because the exclamation carries itself past its literal meaning toward this wonderful appreciation of a feeling that surpasses sensible language.
It’s kinda like wow! kinda like what? kinda like how? like who? like which? and where? because it starts with wh.
Whoah, then, references the infamous ‘Five Ws’: When? Where? Who? What? Why? These are used in information gathering to complete a full story or report of a subject. Whoah is a word that seems to ask all these questions when confronted with something stupefying or unbelievable. Yet, it also captures that eureka feeling of the word oh! like a lightbulb flipping on above your head. So it’s a revelatory expression, too. But it functions best as an almost automatic cerebral response word.
I like how the word has evolved from it being used of horses meaning to slow down, but has transformed into something which makes us stop because of astonishment and wonder. We can’t calm down. Instead it conveys the complete opposite feeling.
As word-as-symbols go, this one seems to me to be living out its meaning in phonetic frequencies. It uses four of the five vowels, yet still manages to get the iii sound in there phonetically. Or then you’ve got spontaneous which may sum up the meaning of the word even better.
Definition-wise, it’s a term that sounds like what it means—
‘1. performed or occurring as a result of an un premeditated inner impulse and without external stimulus. 2. Open, natural, and uninhibited.’
The fluctuating random vowel sound changes and bouncing syllables capture this perfectly for me. I can’t help but love this word because of likening it to improvised jazz and bebop, but this word is also melodic to me. The ascent of the ayy itt tee even though spelled with an ‘e’ – the openly versatile and reversible, interchangeable representation of vowel sounds. Spectacular.
This one’s a little more esoteric. It’s derived from phantasmagoria, a 19th Century theatrical form where optical illusions were created on stage by a magic lantern. The projections of the shadows from the lantern illuminated frightening images onto the stage walls, through smoke and semi-transparent screens. The OED also defines it as ‘a sequence of dreamlike real or imaginary images’.
I think the adjective form is more interesting though. The word phantasmagorical itself seems delusory. It’s almost a fantastic imagistic concept as a word on a page. It’s an aural and optical illusion.
This is down to the fact that it gives the impression of being a hell of a lot of different words. It calls to mind other words—like fantastic, phantom, magic, allegorical. They all bleed into one and overlap. It is at once its own word and all these other words. It possesses its own separate meaning, but warps itself and transforms, metamorphosing in your ear and before your eyes, leaving a kind of after image where trying to really interpret it logically puts you in a trance or surreal dreamlike state. Even looking at it on a page, its shapes shift and contort; the round shapes and tubular characters with the high shapes of the ‘h’ and ‘l’ letters are like the spires of a fairy-tale tower.
For me, the sound, feel and look of the word encapsulates perfectly the sense of it.
Saying or looking at this word is like walking through a fairy-tale castle, or the paracosm of a surrealist writer’s hallucinogenic landscapes. Etymologically, the word itself is a labyrinthine world of twisting nuances. It sits on the borderland of the imaginary and draws you into a linguistic world of shadows and monsters but also beauty and magic.
The lexicon abounds with the very sort of endless, rippling signification that makes words like the above so illuminating, so allusive, so alive. Thinking in this way about our affinity for the mode in which we express ourselves might just bring us closer to not only utilising language to communicate meaning, but understanding our relationship to language itself and what it means to us.