le bon mot

 

The meaning of language

There is a debate among linguists as to what meaningful language is.

It does not consist of mere words. Were this true, then “cat, dog, tail, paws” would be language. But those four words, related though they may be, convey no meaningful thought, and to speak them to another human being would result in a meaningful stare and the expressed or unexpressed statement, “Are you crazy?”

mona-lisa-crop
Mona Lisa, are you smiling?

 

I have inserted Leonardo’s painting of Mona Lisa to prove my point. Woman, brown hair, lake, mountains, sky. Beautiful though it may be, we are left to wonder, is she smiling?

Though some disagree, language does not consist of phrases. Leonard Cohen’s “bird on a wire” or a “drunk in a choir” each sounds beautiful in a song, but it is incomplete, made whole by reference to thoughtful ideas. Like a bird on the wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free.

Thus, I think we can agree, language consists of thoughts.

And a thought is expressed in the form of a sentence whose most basic form includes a subject and predicate, a noun and a verb to children who are just starting to learn the finer points of English.

“Sally ran.” The sentence may not say much, but it does say that Sally ran. Where, with whom, why, and when are all matters left to be filled in by the writer who is telling the story.

le bon mot

I mention all this because I chose the subtitle “le bon mot” for this blog. And this is a way incorrect. “Le bon mot” is a witticism, which the online dictionary defines as, “a cleverly witty and often biting or ironic remark.” An example is Groucho Marx’s funny, “Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana.” Another, I read online goes, “The guy who got his left arm and left leg cut off, is alright now.”

le mot juste

Funny, yes, but I prefer “le mot juste.”

This phrase covers more territory. Thus, Mark Twain says in a letter to George Bainton, 10/15/1888, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” We don’t have to laugh, we may, and we come away with insight into the meaning.

“Bam!”

There I have used Emeril Lagasse’s catch phrase, which is not really a phrase, but a complete sentence unto itself.

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