What’s in a Word?

’Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself though, not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O! be some other name:
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;

(Romeo and Juliet. Act II. Scene II. Line 41 – 48)

The Merriam-Webster dictionary primarily defines a word as being “a speech sound or series of speech sounds that symbolises and communicates a meaning” (and also in relation to this the written characters representing the spoken sounds). Each word we use in the English language – used here as an example being it is my own primary language – can be classified into one of it’s grammatical forms: noun, verb, adverb and adjective, function words including pronouns and prepositions, and the freely inserted inert. How we then position our words in relation to each other (using their grammatical rules) is the way we effectively convey their meanings and communicate with others. That doesn’t really bring Shakespeare’s sonnets to mind does it?

Writing about words as I have above struggles to describe the way a single word can illicit an intense emotional reaction (such as hearing the YES of a marriage proposal being accepted), or how a line in a play can bring forth a sense memory (such as the smell of roses). For these kinds of reactions to happen words need to create a connection. Dr Ira Rososfky writes in Psychology Today (2010) that perhaps Juliet was wrong in stating that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, because of the sheer immense connection we have with words.

It seems obvious that when it comes to choosing the words used for an arts practice, creating an emotional or psychological connection may be as essential as having the right context (not just in the visual arts but also the art forms of writing, singing, spoken word poetry and others). Many of Jenny Holzer’s Truisms and Suvivalisms such as ‘Protect Me From What I Want’ have been used by her in many contexts and on many art forms. This includes: LED signage, a bronze plaque, condom wrappers, projected onto buildings, wooden postcards, on a marble bench. Still the words connect. Perhaps this is just the magic of Jenny Holzer’s words, or perhaps my own inner relationships to this sentence. But I think that is exactly what she was going for. Simple statements which connect with many of us English speakers on a basic emotional level IS part of the context? Because who doesn’t need protection from their endless wants in the globalised consumer world we live in? And she knew this way back in the 80s.

Jenny Holzer, 1982

As a side note, when attempting to manifest this word-based connection artists shouldn’t forget to have an awareness of language barriers. English words might mean nothing to those who don’t speak any English, and as such, their usefulness may fall flat if you’re plastering them all over a city or gallery where nobody speaks English.

And so, as the words are everything in text-based arts, what lies within those words is also everything – they are building blocks of a relationships, and not only a part of communication but also connection.

Words are important, use them wisely.

William Shakespeare

One thought on “What’s in a Word?

  1. Very true.

    On Tue, 17 Sep 2019 at 8:17 pm, Public Art Words wrote:

    > Rebecca Westlund posted: ” ’Tis but thy name that is my enemy;Thou art > thyself though, not a Montague.What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor > foot,Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part Belonging to a man. O! be > some other name:What’s in a name? that which we call a roseBy any o” >


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s