"Word" As a Concept

I feel sure that the following is true: from the moment I understood what a word was, I fell in love with the concept. It has always seemed magical to me, that letters arranged in groups could have so much meaning. All words are a code, even ones that are not meant to be. How tragic that illiteracy guarantees that these codes cannot be broken. What would it be like to not be able to access all that is going on?

Those who say that reading is becoming a thing of the past are not paying attention. The spoken word is powerful, but there is an extra mystique and special power in the written word. For one thing, it cannot be taken back. It is a permanent record of what someone once expressed. For another, it can bridge the cap between those who speak and those who don’t. It also causes us to elucidate our thoughts. Some people can think clearly on the fly–in other words, while they are speaking. But many of us–not just writers–are never completely sure what we mean until we try to put our thoughts into writing.

Even those who speak often rely on the written word as a basis for what they say. The most moving and meaningful speeches and sermons are rarely made up as the speaker goes along. Sometimes we doubt the sincerity of the message if we know that it was written down ahead of time. But should we? It might be that the act of having to write has the effect of making the speaker think more deeply about he or she wants to say. In fact, I believe that it does. That’s one reason why using speechwriters seems suspect to me. Whose words are being expressed, the speaker’s or the speechwriter’s? And even worse is the scenario where the speechwriter uses a third party’s words and passes them off as the speaker’s. It was not only appropriate, but an honor to the author, that President Reagan referred to the Challenger crew as having “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God,” except that Reagan (or, rather, the speechwriter, Peggy Noonan) did not give the author credit. Considering the history of the poem that the lines were taken from, I think the speech would have been even more meaningful if the story of John Magee would have been included. Following is part of his story: (For more, follow the link below.)

“On 3 September 1941, Magee flew a high altitude (30,000 feet) test flight in a newer model of the Spitfire V. As he orbited and climbed upward, he was struck with the inspiration of a poem – “To touch the face of God.”

Once back on the ground, he wrote a letter to his parents. In it he commented, “I am enclosing a verse I wrote the other day. It started at 30,000 feet, and was finished soon after I landed.” On the back of the letter, he jotted down his poem, ‘High Flight’.

Just three months later, on 11 December 1941 (and only three days after the US entered the war), Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, Jr., was killed. The Spitfire V he was flying, VZ-H, collided with an Oxford Trainer from Cranwell Airfield flown by one Ernest Aubrey. The mid-air happened over the village of Roxholm which lies between RAF Cranwell and RAF Digby, in the county of Lincolnshire at about 400 feet AGL at 11:30. John was descending in the clouds. At the enquiry a farmer testified that he saw the Spitfire pilot struggle to push back the canopy. The pilot, he said, finally stood up to jump from the plane. John, however, was too close to the ground for his parachute to open. He died instantly. He was 19 years old.”

How much poorer would be our heritage if John Magee had not written these words. After all, his words brought comfort to many when President Reagan spoke them. When Reagan’s speechwriter neglected to give credit to James Magee (and essentially gave it to Reagan) the opportunity was lost to connect the present with the past and our country with a larger world.