On Mercurial Words

When reflecting on what ancient languages a serious student of the Hebrew Bible needs to know I quoted a sentence from Mark Wilson’s masterful Wandering Significance: An Essay on Conceptual Behavior. Here’s another quotation from Wilson, 567, on the nature of language, particularly predicates that I think interesting,

Words commonly display quite mercurial personalities: on a given day they can display a flash of temperament that may not be seen again for a long time. A term may have been shaped by factors in which we presently retain little interest, and would prefer to detoxify away, yet their relevance can return to befuddle us in ways we cannot readily anticipate. Normally we would prefer that our descriptive vocabulary not find itself tightly chained to specific strands of practical advantage, but sometimes complete escape from strategy’s confines is not easy. Sometimes the shaping winds of opportunity will have placed our predicates over territory from which no viable prolongations extend, however much we might believe that they do and wish that they might.

To fully understand this quotation one must have plowed through the previous 566 pages and anticipate the nearly 100 that are yet to come. Wilson himself describes much of his discourse as “long winded.” But it is well worth the time and occasional agony. That said, I do think this quotation can stand alone. Language has its own uncontrollable qualities that frustrate and sometimes worry us. But what is really abnormally interesting is that we can still communicate, when we make an effort, at a rather high level of reliability. Of course, Wilson doesn’t think otherwise.