Migrant words

Ideas travel because words migrate from one text to another. Writing means recording, and recording is all about setting down, solidifying, making words permanent, grounded. But they don’t stay grounded for long.

Though the books don’t move, words tend to migrate. They piggy back on the minds of readers and find new homes in new texts, from where they continue their migration farther afield.

Some words leave everything they have, context, home, source text, only to become something else elsewhere. They adapt to survive, they change to stay sharp.

The modern mind doesn’t easily accept migrant words. It assumes a kind of nativism which, while in rejects in other areas, fully embraces when it comes to words and texts. Original, unadulterated, untouched, unedited, raw, localised, clear, purebreed, pure-blooded words shaping our expectations and desires.

Words are rarely like that. Texts are never pure. They are born migrants and end up refugees. They wander the world in search of textual communities, looking for roots which never grow, because the stream is too strong, and their nature is to float, to carry – meaning and each other, farther and farther away.

I blame the printed word for the illusion of permanence. Locked in the iron cage of the printed page, the mechanical word seems to be preserved for all eternity, like an exhibit in a natural history museum. But even printed words run away. We often think of what the text can do for a reader, the claims that the text has on her. But we rarely consider what the reader can do for the text, what claims reading has on words and ideas.

Reading is an irreversible activity. Once seen and read, words can’t be unseen or unread. They may be ignored, but they never go away.

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