As I’m writing this, it’s still Memorial Day, and I’ve been thinking a lot about words and their true meaning. About memory, and loss, and the act of remembering. I’m reminded of one of my favorite epigraphs:
From The Book of Embraces by Eduardo Galeano:
Recordar: To remember, from the Latin re-cordis, to pass back through the heart.
To me, there’s beauty in this definition, not just because of what it says but how it’s said. When we struggle to find meaning—in words, in actions, in holidays that retail giants muddle—all we have to do is go back to the roots, the origins. We might find that a word like “remember” can be best defined by another language, a fact which I find strangely poetic. For a writer, words are tools we use with the utmost precision, but translation (or the futility of it) reminds us that there are some things so intangible only experience or instinct can express it.
Growing up with two languages taught me to respect both the power and limitations of words. When I first came to U.S. I spoke only Spanish—it wasn’t until the start of kindergarten, a year after I’d been here, that I began to learn English. At that age, language is like a switch; one day it just flips on and illuminates everything around you. I caught on so quickly that my mom, who spoke more English than I did when we first arrived from Peru, soon found herself asking me and my sister to translate:
Como se dice “sinvergüenza” in English?
Someone who’s shameless.
Yes, but there isn’t just one word?
I can’t think of just one word.
And what about when you mean it playfully?
I don’t know. Maybe you laugh as you say it?
Come se dice “friolenta” in English?
Someone who’s always cold.
Yes, but what’s the word for that?
I can’t think of just one.
And on and on the conversations would go, several times a week. To this day, my mom will still ask me to define a word or expression, and every once in a while the scenario plays out in reverse: we’ll find a word in English can’t quite be summed up in Spanish.
This constant testing of language is fascinating to me. It’s probably (and I can’t believe this is only now occurring to me) a huge part of why I became a writer. Growing up with two languages, I learned two forms of expression. I learned about voice, and perspective, and that words do more than describe what already exists—they often mold what has yet to be defined.
Let us never forget the true meaning of the words we use, nor underestimate their power.