In Albert Camus’ memorable novel The Plague, there is a particularly poignant section where the protagonist realizes the limitations of his words.
At that moment he knew what his mother was thinking, and that she loved him. But he knew, too, that to love someone means relatively little; or, rather, that love is never strong enough to find the words befitting it. Thus he and his mother would always love each other silently. And one day she – or he – would die, without ever, all their lives long, having gone farther than this by way of making their affection known.
We use words daily. We write, we speak, we read, and we even have commentary running through our minds most of the time. Yet words are imperfect, because they are simply mappings. Words are references to abstract concepts that are often too nuanced and complex to ever fully be captured.
Every word points to the tip of an iceberg of meaning, and the contents of the iceberg differ from person to person. There’s no guarantee that you and the person you’re communicating with share similar semantic structures, though certain things help. A shared cultural background, similar childhood upbringings, or common life circumstances aid in bridging the gap between definitions.
To illustrate, some years ago, I was working on the Internationalization team at a consumer-facing tech company. The team was struggling with the translation of certain terms.
“The literal translation of love in German means to ‘super-like’ something,” explained our German-speaking teammate. “But in English, sending someone love means sending them support, giving them your blessings. We can’t take the literal translation. Can you imagine posting about something upsetting – such as the death of a loved one – and having a friend ‘super-like’ it?”
Unlike Camus’ protagonist, I don’t think of the imperfection of words as a discouraging thing. Instead, I think of it as something to marvel at. When a piece of writing is able to bring us to tears, cause bouts of laughter, or put us in a place of intense contemplation, the author has accomplished an incredible feat. She has, however temporarily, managed to convey her own definitions of a concept, idea, or emotion through this flawed and lossy medium.