I love word play. Not just the complicated sort with anagrams and crostics, but the simple playing with words. I have yet to find a page of any dictionary that fails to provide at least one fascinating tidbit, a sort of mind morsel to munch on (couldn’t resist). But I was recently driven to take an analytical look at this innocent play by a chance remark of a friend. She did not like poetry, she said, because she did not like ambiguity, the root of poetry.
Now ambiguity means, to me, an indefiniteness or vagueness, a lacking in the specific. And that seems wrong, somehow. I don’t think it is vagueness that lies at the heart of poetry. Nor do I think it is that which I find so delightful about language. What I love (and what I think provides poetry with its universality) is its illuminating ambivalence.
For instance: The etymology of the word adventure is based upon the Latin ad + ven(ire), meaning come to, arrive, discover, etc. Adventure carries a flavor of excitement and discovery. But it also carries a connotation of danger or risk. This seems to imply that something that arrives without warning inevitably has a undertone of danger or risk. Which sounds to me like a pessimistic but not inaccurate description of the human condition.
However, another word we use, adventitious, has the same etymology but means something good which is unplanned or accidental.
Again, there is the verb venture, which derives from the same latin root (coming to) but means to try, to go out and take a risk.
Finally, there is the word advent, which shares the same root as everybody else and means an arrival or appearance, but which has the connotation that it is the arrival or appearance of something happy or good.
And herein lies the real conundrum. It is not that any of these words are vague or ambiguous in themselves. However they reflect, as a set, a view of reality that is so ambivalent as to be contradictory. Far from being a problem, this seems to be a lovely example of language’s flexibility in accurately mirroring the contrapuntal way we see the world.
A surprise is coming your way. Is that good news or bad? Happy or sad? Would you want to know your baby’s sex? Honey, I’ve got a surprise for you! Oh God, a letter from the IRS! Boy! Was I surprised!
The human animal is peculiar and our relationship with the unpredictable is peculiar. We love/hate surprises. We go on roller coasters because the unexpected gets our blood pumping with fear/pleasure. We believe bad news come in threes. We believe that sometimes you just have to take a flyer, throw your bonnet over the windmill, have an adventure. We believe in luck, good and bad, because it give us some handle on the random side of life. And we believe that sometimes you just have to trust your luck.
The root word for felicity in Latin, felix, did not originally mean happy. It meant lucky. Our languages reflect that life has always been seen to have an element of chance that keeps it unpredictable, fortuitous, random. And man, stubbornly hopeful/fearful, remains ambivalent about it.
Quote: The Optimist believes this is the best of all possible worlds.
The Pessimist is afraid he’s right.