Novels, news, plays, debates, speeches, texts, films, podcasts, instructions—we move through life on a conveyor belt of words. Yet the most powerful are those that cannot be uttered.
People were so terrified of bears that they created the first known euphemism, replacing the creature’s formal name with words meaning “the brown one” or “the honey eater.” Using the actual name, they feared, might summon the bear.
It does often work that way in fairy tales and witchcraft: You must speak something’s true name to call it into being. Names wield power. He Who Must Not Be Named is what Harry Potter calls Lord Voldemort, because, in a neat trick of psychology, Dumbledore knows the fear that would ripple from the name’s utterance would only increase the fear of Voldemort himself.
She Who Must Be Obeyed is the curmudgeonly barrister’s wife, Hilda Rumpole, in Rumpole of the Bailey—a wry acknowledgment of fear already long established.
On a happier note, there is no surer way to intrigue someone you have just met than to refuse to tell them your name. Your name is who you are. It tags and contains and locates you. Maybe that is why some religious traditions refrain from speaking God’s name except in prayer and study. They cite the commandment not to speak the Lord’s name in vain but shy away even from benign use, perhaps because of the audacity of it, the impossibility of locating God in time and space. If Orthodox Jews write “God,” they protect it by omission: “G-d.” That way, the rabbis say, “You never have to throw the name of the master of the universe into the wastebasket.” The Sacred Name of God is the Tetragrammaton—four Hebrew letters that translate as YHWH—but instead of sounding out those letters, they substitute “Adonai” (the Lord) or “HaShem” (the Name).
Christians say “Yahweh” or “God” easily, but the name they repeat in meditative prayer is “Jesus,” summoning the gentler and more familiar son. “God” is saved for shock or, omg, everyday awe. And why, I wonder, do we so regularly invoke God’s name at the peak of physical pleasure? I analyze after the fact and decide that I am overtaken by awe of another sort altogether—and maybe I feel a little too vulnerable, in need of divine protection because I have given up control, trading it for release.
Such uses do not feel profane to me, and the fear of taking God’s name “in vain” hardly seems a reason for silencing everyday wonder. If we are to avoid speaking the name, I would rather see our silence as an admission that God is too big to be contained by our alphabet. Ineffable.
And are there words to explain “ineffable”? You cannot silence a dictionary. “Ineffable: incapable of being expressed or described in words.” Why, though? Because something is too sacred, or utterly strange, or so powerfully moving that we say, helpless, “There are no words.”
A mystical experience would qualify, and I envy those who are pure enough, or have suffered enough, or gotten high enough, to have one. But I do wish they would stop trying to attach words to it afterward. The attempt too often reduces the experience to a grand and vague silliness, leaving the rest of us less awed and more interested in finding them a good therapist.
Self-consciousness is ineffable, too. We feel its inaudible hum whenever we are awake, and we know it is what lets us talk to ourselves, feel that we are ourselves. Is it a trick of biochemistry? The brain folding in upon itself? The mind cutting loose? In Ineffability and Its Metaphysics, Silvia Jonas suggests that “self-acquaintance might be understood specifically as acquaintance with God,” which brings me up short. Could my private, inner sense of self, that running thread that strings together all my reactions and ideas, be what connects me to whatever binds the universe?
That would make sense of the notion that we are not as separate as we think. It would also explain the power of stillness. What is spoken separates us, even when language is performing at its sensitive best, into speaker and receiver. Wordless awareness reminds us that we are inextricable. Once, in the hot middle of an argument with my husband, I shut up just long enough to feel connected again, and it changed the way I spoke. At the risk of sounding sarcastic, I will venture to say that the best moments in a marriage are often silent.
Silence opens us to all that remains unspoken, all that lies beneath our fumbling, raw, insensible, hopelessly inadequate words. Silence is what makes reverence possible. Using that word for a marriage startles me, even as I type it. But we use “reverence” too sparingly. It means a deep and profound respect, and it could teach us how to treat each other, ourselves, the Earth.
Some of what deserves a reverent silence is ineffable, but we leave plenty unspoken just in superstition. Inside a theatre, for example, actors will refer only to the Scottish play or the Scottish king, because the name Macbeth is thought to bring disaster.
At other times, extreme joy, rage, or horror makes something unspeakable. Parents have been known to roar of an exiled prodigal, “That name will never again be spoken in this house.” A similar wish to punish—in this case by wounding vanity—caused many people to avoid the surname of Joe Biden’s predecessor.
Anatomical parts and bodily functions were often left unspoken in an excess of primness we are finally shedding. Commercials detail every bodily function, fluid, and embarrassment with perky promises of shameless relief. Other taboos demanded that certain ways of being hide in silence. For years, I thought “the love that dare not speak its name” was Oscar Wilde’s sly reference to his homosexual relationship, but it was his partner, Lord Alfred Douglas, who used the phrase to end a poem about love and shame.
Profanity is another set of words that used to be unspeakable, at least in “polite” company (which is often the cruelest sort). When George Carlin did his famously defiant monologue about the “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” people stalked out of clubs in a huff, the very sound of those syllables shattering their porcelain sensibilities. That was half a century ago; today, people cuss so freely, it is a disappointment to me. I relish profanity’s harsh jolt, its freewheeling vehemence. Coy asterisks grate on my nerves. But now the strongest words are used in every sentence, often many times per sentence, and this feels either contrived for effect or lazy. The words’ frequent utterance saps their power.
Words exhaust themselves because we rush to use them to prove ourselves. Shutting up is easier with creatures. Philosopher Thomas Nagel points out how impossible it is to empathize with a bat’s conscious experience when you neither fly nor use sonar. What is it like to be a bat? We can imagine, extrapolate, pretend, but in the end, we cannot say.
Now that we are clearing away the taboos of the nervous past, maybe we can think more deliberately about what we leave unspoken. It would be good to use silence to honor what is unknowable, instead of trying to rip away the power of what we fear.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.