What Rumpelstiltskin Means

8 Jan

Anyone who knows me will know I have a thing for words. They intrigue and inspire, they amuse and alarm. But there is seldom anything more satisfying than finding a single word which sums up neatly a situation or emotion. This is why “petrichor”, the smell of the earth after the rain, sticks more easily in our brains than, say “zugzwang”, a term used in chess to describe a situation where you have to make a move even though you’d be better off staying put. Zugzwang might have many useful metaphorical applications, but practically speaking, most of us, well, don’t play chess. But most of us have smelled the earth after the rain, and been struck by the sensory nature of that experience.

And so we collect these words which neatly sum things up, which are apt, and help us define and describe our worlds. This is why we fall eagerly upon lists of “untranslatable” words – because so often they manage to fill one word with an entire sentence of meaning. Who would use “being pleased at the misfortune of others” once they’d heard “schadenfreude”, or “to hesitate as you’re introducing someone because you suddenly forget their name” once you’ve encountered “tartle”?

But the joy of finding a word that explains something you’ve not before been able to express clearly outside of your own head extends far more deeply. How about learning the word “heartbroken” for the first time as a child? Learning that your heart could break, holding that concept. And then, at a point hopefully years later, feeling that word. Or, as my friend told me last night, what about learning the word “gay” for the first time, and knowing that was what describes an aspect of you?

In the tale of Rumpelstiltskin, knowing his name gave people power over him. This is an old trope of magic and fairy stories. And it’s a magic I believe in. Knowing the names for things, no matter how big or small, empowers us. Without words, ideas, emotions – even our very essence – can get lost inside us. Words, however fallible and feeble, allow us to hold things outside of ourselves, in a way that others can try to share. Choose your words carefully. Wear them like jewels.

 

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