"Words, Words, Words"

"Words, Words, Words"

by Kiley Miller

“Words, words, words.” - Hamlet

This quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet pops in my head more often than any other. It’s my “to be or not to be.” As a writing teacher, I find more opportunities than most to slip it into casual classroom conversations. I don’t know if my students recognize the quote, or assume it’s just a tick. 

“Words, words, words.”

In the scene from Hamlet,  Polonius asks Hamlet what he’s reading, and depending on the version of the play, the retort is delivered in varying ways. In some, the line crescendos dramatically, and in others, it's flung frenetically as Hamlet’s face and body contort with each punctuated exclamation. In others, the line is delivered in staccato, strategically hurled to interrupt Polonius. 

I haven't seen a Hamlet where my favorite line is spoken with pure reverence, but that's how I always think of “words, words, words”: emotive, barely whispered, and vibrating with possibility. 

I’ve always thought of words as errant puzzle pieces, waiting to be assembled and curated: some are clearly edges or—  eureka!—  a corner piece, and you can sort most of them by color or shape. Tubes of paint, pots of color, harsh, mellow, or inspiring. There's a reason we have the euphemism “colorful language.” With a little imagination, there are endless opportunities for exploration and expression. 

With quotes, it’s like someone has already put the puzzle together, arranging the words and making them automatically familiar. That recognition makes for easy bonding, too. I’ve made new friends because someone said, “You go, Glen Coco!” and then we traded Mean Girls lines for hours. I’ve seen tense arguments defused with an artfully timed and enthusiastic, “You can’t handle the truth!” 

These immediate connections give power to words, and I’ve long recognized and revered this power. For me, it started as early as elementary or middle school, when I started recording a slang dictionary in the last pages of my diary. Some of the entries were early AIM or text slang, like LYLAS or LOL— was there any other way to say bye to your middle school best friend, or show how funny you found something? Many were entered after an eyeroll to my parents who simply could not understand the difference between “tight” and “sweet,” or “chillax” and “take a chill pill.” I want to say I got the dictionary idea from Andrew Clements’ Frindle, where these 5th graders basically create a new word and it gets added to the dictionary. #LifeGoals, right? 

I’ve long recognized the unmatched magnitude of power of words, and I feel a desperate craving to commit them to paper lest they slip away. Before widespread literacy, when the sticks, bumps, and squiggles—  commonly known as letters— were less intelligible, they were treated with a different kind of reverence. Now, they’re also a great equalizer, presenting opportunity, social mobility, and entertainment for the masses. 

The excitement and potential of this power to create and uplift stands in contrast to fear and malfeasance, where words are bent out of shape or purposely taken out of context. Refusing to use preferred pronouns, fear mongering, trolling, and doxing, whether born of naïveté or poor decision-making, take seconds to commit but have lasting consequences. Whether this power is a good or bad thing, I haven’t been able to decide. Maybe it’s neither and both. Words are like that in their simplicity, potential, and ultimate influence.

More recently, that power has manifested in some surprising ways as we look back on a year of quarantine, spent in versions of lockdown, in degrees of constant anxiety and loneliness. I’ve found myself more and more often turning to the reprieve of words, a chance to turn off the screen and pick up a pen or book. It’s a privilege to jot down ideas and ease my mind in the blank pages of a journal. I revel in the chance to be whisked away to far-off places, or at least somewhere that isn’t my own couch and a time period that isn’t now. 

These stories we make and share are lifelong friends, never leaving us, waiting patiently on the bookshelf. Words offer hope, words are rays of sunshine, words are luminous tableaus ready for viewing, puzzle pieces awaiting assembly.


Featured in our April 2021 issue, "Word/Play"