Groping for trout

tuna“You can tune a piano but you can’t tune a fish”

Words, words, words. Sometimes I feel like becoming a monk solely for the reason to be beyond words, of no need of words, away from words and their slinking skullduggery. They are cruel and they often don’t mean what they mean.

I know I’m groping for trout. I’ll get to that point in a moment. First, let me tell you what set off this minor mental meandering.

My wife has been doing some translation work and she asked me about this sentence –

“The watch is going”

I immediately told her that it meant the watch was “dying” or almost finished.

She looked at me puzzled and asked if it might mean something else. I thought about it and couldn’t think of anything else it might mean (so clouded we are by the force of WORDS).

She said, “might it mean that it is working?”  And then it hit me, of course, that is what it does mean! And then it hit me again, blyme – isn’t that the exact opposite of the first meaning?

You see, words have got us by the throat and they won’t let us go. They are our are our arrrr arrrr real taskmasters. It is us who are groping for trout.

And that brings me to the title of this little piece.

You see, often when I get confused, I seek refugee with those who have even got more confused by the same demons. So I took down my newly unpacked volumes of William Gass and cracked open an essay or two. More exactly, his essay on “Groping for Trout” where he elaborates on how we create our own meaning of things and there is no center that holds….

“No, we can put order anywhere we like. There’s not a trout we can’t tickle, a fish for which we can’t contrive a net. We can find forms in ink blots, clouds, the tubercular painter’s spit: and to the ants we can impute designs which Alexander would have thought himself vainglorious to dream of.  But to think of order and chaos in this relative way is not to confuse them, or put conditions out of the reach of judgement. there are clashes between orders, confusions of realms. Not every arrangement is equally effective. And we must keep in mind the relation of any order to the chosen good.”

Hmmm. What I think good, great Gass is saying is that we create the meaning, not the words!  I guess, I see this point. And time, that destroyer of all things is the worst culprit. It changes the meaning and let’s some things endure, others die. And our words get full of confusion.  We now drive on a parkway and park in a driveway.

Still, I’m not quite sure if words don’t have their own “hold” and power. Not to do a Wittgenstein but as a teacher, honored to be a meister of words, I’ve seen how words have their own force, independent of human will or even Fromkin and Rodman.

Think of   fAt  and fit. Does the eye lie?  Or what of all those gutteral sounds that all represent a disgUst? William Blood wrote a whole book on the poetic alphabet centuries ago and his point still stands – words (by default sound)  have their own power independent of man. This is how the hole expands with slit – slat – slot (and even “slut”)  as the vowel sound widens?

I guess I’m not making a lot of sense.  But that is precisely the point. Words don’t make sense, so we do. Or we make sense and words do.   Or perhaps the truth is somewhere between?

To end on a lighter note, a story. Long ago, teaching ESL to new immigrants to Canada, I received a note from Snezenka, a Serbian student (and I kid you not, her name means, “Snow White”).  It was a letter apologizing for missing some classes. At the end it read, “P.S.  Thank you for the massage.   As I read it, I was really confused. She was a beautiful woman and had this really happened? I was working long hours and who knows…. but then, after some long thought, my mind started “going” – it dawned on me. It was simply a spelling mistake, “message” not “massage”.

I”m still like that, still groping for trout in the wonderful stream of words.

If you liked this post, you’ll like: Sopranos: The Indelible Nature of Language

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Teacher trainer, technology specialist, educational thinker...creator of EFL Classroom 2.0, a social networking site for thousands of EFL / ESL teachers and students around the world.

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5 Responses

  1. Evan says:

    Yes, one of the big challenges in our lives as teachers.


    “When I use a word”, Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less” (Through the Looking Glass, Chapter 6)

  2. ddeubel says:


    Thanks for the reminder of that amazing language maven! I used to read and savor Carroll just for the fact that he had such a sound (no pun intended) take on language and also using it. Like e.e.cummings too – I can also name some surrealists in the same vein , especially Gertrude Stein.

    I guess the pickle is not what we mean, but rather what another person thinks we mean. Kind of Pinker’s call for less indirect speech and use of language.

    But yeah, some days I feel like I’ve fallen through the looking glass…

  3. This was a great read. Thanks David. I’ve RSSed so I don’t miss others like it 🙂

    It reminds me of the higher truth of perception… that it is the eyes we look through that determine what is really there. And even more so, the quantum mechanics of “sitting” on a chair when you’ll actually never ever touch that chair despite all your efforts— electrons pushing each other, and making 1% of “solid” fill in 99% of space so that it looks like 100% of solid.

    THIS is why, I too, could spend a lifetime (or a few) as a monk playing with life, its words and its truth. Or is it the opposite, erasing all of these things to see them with eyes unmasked.

    Or, as William Blake put it : “To see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower Hold infinity in the palms of your hand and eternity in an hour.”

  4. ddeubel says:

    I’ll try to keep up the high standard Brad – but you know how life gets in the way!

    I hear you about how interesting perception/phenomenology is. Fascinating. You reminded me of another great Blake quote – If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.

    I’m a big one for NOT looking but finding (to paraphrase Picasso). We can look so hard that we only see what we want – I think it important to zen out and “Be there”. Let truth come to you. Cultivez our jardins and that stuff. That is why I have great affinity for the everyday of things and really try and pay attention to it as a poet in my out and about regular day.

    You’d enjoy Gass (if you don’t already). A kind of energetic Gertrude Stein. On Being Blue is the usual starting book for him….

    always wondered why we see infinity as “large”. That’s why I always liked that Blake quote…….. it jumps out of our phenomenological bias.

  5. “Il faut culviter son jardin” was my high school quote… tons more to say, but the irony is what’s most vibrant now.

    I was going to go for the Jim Morrison doors of perception luv, but, instead I tended towards originality, but as M.C. Escher said… “Originality is merely an illusion”

    And yet, from the feel of your last reply and “finding not seeking”, everything is original too, when you see it as it is this moment. 🙂 Alas, we digress and now life is getting in the way !

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