To what extent do our words belong to us? At first glance, we bear a great deal of responsibility for our words, and we often take great pride in them. Entire books are filled with quotations that people have been made so that they are properly remembered. One of the more notable of these efforts is a book that examines the attributed sayings of Abraham Lincoln and grades them on an A-F scale as to the likelihood that he said them. High school teachers (and not only they) go to websites to look up whether or not the writings of their students are their own or whether those students have copied someone else. Occasionally I find my own blog linked to these various sites, indicating that some high school student thought that they could get a good grade by passing off my own words as their own and got busted for it. I am not sure how to feel about having my works copied or about seeing a student have to deal with the consequences of copying my works as if they were their own.
I am even more hostile to the trend by which companies advertise ways for computers to more or less write essays themselves for students by looking up online sources (properly documented, of course) that seek to provide automated essay writing for students who obviously want someone other than themselves to do the hard work of research and writing something for school. Obviously, such people have no professional pride as writers, no desire to make sure that their words are their own, as best as possible. Such people also miss the point of what essay writing is about. It is not merely about creating a polished work of writing that can get a good grade, but about helping to refine the way that the mind thinks. Admittedly, essayism is not a very common area for people to study or know about, but the writer of an essay is revealing the thought process of his (or her or its) “mind” in the source of the essay that is written. It is fascinating to think of the approach of a computer to this task, but also somewhat disappointing that so many people do not want to improve the quality of their own mind and simply want to save time by having a computer do their own work for them. Such desires to outsource one’s labor while retaining the profits of the labor have often led to various difficulties throughout history, and one can imagine a case where this will lead to trouble in the future as well.
Even when we write our own words, as I am doing here, the extent to which they are truly our own is not always easy to determine. It is easy for the reader to twist words in the memory to something that is smoother and easier to remember but not (exactly) what was said or written, has has been the case for writers and speakers from Shakespeare to Churchill. Few texts are plain enough that someone with the proper motivation cannot misinterpret them. Even within the Bible we have complaints about the misinterpretation of scripture, perhaps most eloquently in 2 Peter 3:14-16: “ Therefore, beloved, looking forward to these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, without spot and blameless; and consider that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation—as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures.” When I think of the cruel fate that has sometimes befallen my own writings, this is a verse I keep in mind to remind myself that I am not the only person to write things hard to understand that others twist to their destruction and to my own embarrassment and discomfort.
It is not only with regards to interpretations where our words are not always understood the way that we would wish them to be. Even the words that we might coin and create can quickly cease to be our own. For example, one writer found that his name was attached to doors and other devices that simply did not work, such that a “Norman door” has come within the community of those who think and right about the design of everyday objects for doors that are designed in a perverse way to frustrate their opening by people, regardless of how elegant they are as objects d’art. Likewise, the words that we coin can always be treated the way that coins are, shaved and corrupted by those who come along with principles lighter and burdens heavier than we ourselves, has has happened so many times before and so frequently in the contemporary generation where people have an active interest in perverting the language for their own political benefit and their own pride and ego. Someone bears responsibility for a corrupt coin as well as corrupt language, but it is not always the original coiner, but often someone later on who saw a convenient way to improve one’s situation in the present without care of the consequences. And so we find ourselves responsible not only for our own words, but those words we pass on, and for the spins and meanings that we add to our own words and that of others. Communication is filled with areas of thorny and unpleasant responsibility, which is often shirked but which will, one day, have to be faced.