The Importance of Words | Matt Taylor

Matthew Taylor goes on a journey through time, cultures and geographies to unlock the meaning and wisdom held within the words we speak.

illustration by Storm Athill

illustration by Storm Athill

Bite-size exposures to etymology– the study of the origins of words – can help nurture an exciting realisation: there is far more to words than initially meets the eye (and ear). The origins of words can be interesting, useful, inspiring, and sometimes emancipatory.

Take the word spirit, for example. I use spirit to denote our non-physical and immaterial inner being or our soul, not vodka, rum, whiskey and co. Spirit and spirituality are becoming ever more relevant in a world where people are increasingly turning their attention inward for answers, seeking teachers in yoga, meditation and general well-being. Many define spirituality not as an alternative religion but as an alternative to religion. Spirit is an important word. It is a word that can conjure up images and thoughts of mysterious floating ghost-like entities, Native Americans and Druids, peace and suffering, life and death. But did it summon your breath to mind? 

The word spirit originates from the Latin word spirare, which means ‘to breathe’; giving us other words like respiration. In many languages the word for spirit and breath is the same. In Arabic their origin is rouh or ‘روح’, which can mean many things including strength, relaxation, happiness and inspiration. Focusing on the breath helps cultivate states of mind related to those denoted by rouh, including awareness and deep peace. As a result, the breath is often the central focus for meditation and is fundamental to yoga, two of the most established spiritual practices. A simple form of meditation, known as ‘Mindfulness of Breathing’, is the form of meditation that Buddha is said to have been practicing under the Bodhi tree when he attained Enlightenment.  

In Sanskrit – the philosophical language of Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism -prana is the word for both breath and also the ‘life-giving force’. This takes us back to the classical origins of our own language; the Ancient Greeks believed that when we die we breathe out our spirit or life-force. In The Iliad, Homer’s ferocious rendition of the battle of Troy, there are many references to the soul and breath at the time of death. When fiery Achilles spears Hippodamas’ back as he leaps from his chariot, Homer confirms the loss of Hippodamas saying, ‘but he breathed out his soul, and groaned’. This view of the soul and breath is why the Ancient Greek’s traditional funeral rite was cremation. The body was no longer required once the spirit had been breathed out, so it was burned.

illustration by Storm Athill

illustration by Storm Athill

Now, we can start to see how over time spirare, to breathe, evolved into our word spirit; the breath is central to prominent spiritual practices and in various cultures the breath has been linked with our life-force, our spirit, our soul.

Word Count: 1330 2 The word for soul in Latin is animus (masculine) or anima (feminine). Beyond soul and spirit the masculine animus can also mean mind, consciousness and thought. The feminine anima, on the other hand, can also mean breath, air and wind. While the main focus of the masculine appears to be inward, relating the soul to the psyche, the feminine focus appears to be outward, relating the soul to the air of the world around us. Just as cultures have linked our own breath with our spirit, we can begin to see the wind as the breath of Mother Nature and so the spirit of Earth. Patrick Rothfuss picks up on this in his heroic fantasy, The Name of the Wind. In the book, it is only once one knows the name of the wind that one is able to communicate with all things on earth.

Crucial to this masculine and feminine distinction is that, according to many philosophies like Taoism, masculine and feminine or Yin and Yang are two halves that complete wholeness or oneness. Each half exists within the other, representing the fundamental connection of all things. Former monk and gracious activist, Satish Kumar, opened his talk at Advaya Initiative’s event in September by highlighting our connection with one another, with Earth and with all other sentient beings. He did this by drawing our attention to the fact that we share one breath; ‘we breathe the same air’, he proclaimed.

Just as the air is the source of our breath and therefore our spirit, that same air is also the source of the wind and so Earth’s spirit. Our spirits are one and the same. We are all connected. We are made whole because both Earth and us exist. We are one. As a consequence, the word spirit not only reveals the importance of our breath as our life-force but it can also lead us to appreciate the fundamental connection we hold with Earth and each other.  

What is the importance of all this? While the importance of our breath and the interconnection of all things is not news, my intent was to demonstrate the depth words have. There is far more to them than initially meets the eye. Words have a definition, which provides their core meaning, stripped naked and bare. But words also have history and culture and this dresses up their meaning and connotations, providing them with far more depth than is often appreciated. The meaning and connotations of some words have changed drastically over time. A common example is the word ‘gay’ but think also of the numbers 9/11 and the name ‘Adolf’.

The depth of words matters because words matter. Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre went so far as to see words and language as freedom. While music and art can portray emotion, words allow us to communicate in a unique way. Language enabled humanity to develop as we know it. It was around 150,000 – 350,000 years ago when language first appeared that ‘modern day humans’ were first recorded too. Language is the limit of our communication but it also enables it. Words free us but also constrain us. It is because words matter so much that ‘Right Speech’ is part of Buddhism’s Eightfold Path, one of the Four Noble Truths of Enlightenment.

Words, however, do not just matter when we use them to communicate. We think with words too. Jerry Fodor’s Language of Thought Hypothesis, the most prominent theory about the structure of cognitive thought, claims that cognitive thought has a linguistic structure. Thoughts are sentences in the mind. This is important when we consider the line from Christianity’s Book of Proverbs (23:7) ‘For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he…’ A similar saying exists in Buddha’s Dhammapada: ‘our life is shaped by our own mind, for we become what we think’. Of course, we should not interpret this literally, implying that if I think of Elvis Presley I will break into a sexy baritone performance of ‘Blue Suede Shoes’. It is more that where an impure mind can lead to suffering, a pure mind can lead to well-being. If this is the case, then, like our spirit and breath, the importance of words and language exists both externally and internally. While words enable us to communicate with others, our internal words or thoughts can affect our experience of life and the state of our soul.

So, words have depth beyond initial appearances. Words can mean many things. Words form our thoughts. Words are simultaneously our locks and our keys. Words can emancipate and words can dissipate. Words matter. We should therefore take care over the words we use. Remember to read between the lines but also read beneath them. Expose yourself to etymology: what is a word’s origin? How did it become what it is today? And what are its meanings and connotations? While I defined spirit as our non-physical being, spirituality is tougher to define. After taking time to read beneath the word, right back to its origins, perhaps spirituality is simply the appreciation of breath and therefore of life; both within ourselves and wherever we may find it.  

Matthew Taylor

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Matt is a researcher, holistic masseur and writer. He studied Politics, Philosophy & Economics at the University of Manchester, and completed a Masters in Global Governance & Ethics at UCL. Since then he has worked for non-governmental organisations, such as the Global Hub for the Common Good and the Climate Disclosure Project (CDP). Environmental and social issues resonate with Matt, as do many other things such as music, dance (he has been known to DJ, play guitar and do the twist), cycling (he raised money for Advaya, cycling to Hungary) and photography.

Issue OneWill Chapman