It ought to be of little surprise to anyone who knows me well that I am fond of both the image and the word. Besides being responsible for the writing and speaking of a fair amount of words, depending on who I am around and on my schedule, I have also long had an interest in meme culture. It is commonly said as a cliche that a picture is worth a thousand words, and leftists are typically made fun of for being unable to distill their thinking into concise and humorous memes in the way that is familiar for those whose political views are right of center. But while I was trying to discuss the meaning of words for someone for whom English is a second language, it struck me as well that English (as well as numerous other languages) have an advantage when it comes to understanding them that there is frequently some sort of image around them that can be used in order to better understand the meaning of a given word that may seem difficult at first.
I would like to point out, before getting too far into it, that English is not unique in this. Chinese characters, for example, are famous for the way that the characters used in words have a great deal of meaning that can be used to decipher the context of the word. Similarly, biblical Hebrew is famous for having its words be spelled out in symbolic action that describes the word in vivid detail by virtue of its component parts. English, as it uses a rather non-pictographic alphabet, is not visually descriptive in this sense, but it is frequently so when it comes to the mental image that is portrayed by the words that make up the language.
That this is so can be demonstrated by looking at a few words that I had to define for my ESOL friend. I was asked about the meaning of obnoxious, for example, which refers to something that is bothersome or troublesome. Obnoxious, of course, has noxious as a root, and noxious refers to unpleasant and often toxic odors, providing the sort of mental picture of the way that bad behavior “stinks” and leads us to turn our nose the way we would at some sort of foul-smelling and poisonous odor. Similarly, in defining discombobulated, it is helpful to think of someone or something (like a duck or a concussed football player) who is walking around bobbing their head in a confused fashion, in order to better understand what the word pictures. English is full of lengthy words which can be split up into smaller parts which can be more easily and often visually understood.
Just as images can be understood by the words that must be used to explain the given image and its context in order for it to be understood by someone who does not share the common base of knowledge that is used by those who understand the same shorthand, so too words can be best understood by the images that they conjure up. To the extent that the image summons up the common base of textual knowledge that allows for comprehension and the word summons up the images that also allow for comprehension and understanding, we can better use our knowledge to feed into itself and allow it to grow far faster than it would otherwise.
One of the notable aspects about English and many other languages is that abstract things can be better understood if they are seen as acting in the same way as other beings. For example, one’s mind wanders in the same sense that a sheep wanders throughout a field and must be gathered back into the flock by the loving and caring shepherd. In the same way, in Hebrew, God saves His people by a powerful and outstretched arm, providing a powerful image to what is often the rather abstract and indirect working of divine providence in our lives. By putting the mental, spiritual, and emotional worlds, which are hard for us to visualize, in the same terminology as we use to discuss the physical world, and by referring to wandering planets in the same way we refer to wandering thoughts and wandering animals, we can bridge the gulfs of understanding that result from differences in scale as well as category that often inhibit our understanding. Through the judicious use of metaphorical imagery, we can understand that in vital ways, something that we cannot see acts in similar ways to that which we are familiar with, and so we can bootstrap our knowledge of the familiar to better perceive and understand that which is beyond our sight. Only in such ways can we understand vast areas of knowledge at all.