A Loggerhead Shrike flew in and flittered about the quail, sparrows, and finches that picked through seeds on the feeders in our orchard. It was the first time I had seen one here at the ranch. It is a small, striking blue-grey bird with a black band across its face like the Lone Ranger’s mask. What makes the shrike interesting and often a topic of conversation in the birding world is that it impales its prey, mainly lizards and small rodents, on cactus and mesquite thorns. It’s not uncommon to see a lizard that has met its demise hanging from barbed wire, a shrike perched in a tree nearby, scolding intruders.
I wanted to know more about the bird and found an online entry on the National Audubon Society site titled, “Shrikes Have an Absolutely Brutal Way of Killing Large Prey”. It struck me that someone writing for an organization that protects birds would use such vilifying language to describe what is the hunting pattern of a bird. I was curious of what other salacious words and phrases the author used to describe this predator of the songbird world and found these: gruesomely impaled, macabre behavior and weaponry. The last paragraph reads, “A headbanging, prey-impaling, death bird”. I thought of an Oscar Wilde quote, “To define is to limit”. The instincts of the Loggerhead Shrike had suffered at the hands of a writer.
Words are powerful. They lead, inspire, and move us. They disgust, repel, and haunt us. Words can create a vacuum or fill a void; make us laugh or make us cry; build us up with love or tear us down with hate. Words tell the truth and spout lies. Filling libraries, churches, and schools, words record our history and predict the future. They work as agents among us building relationships, cultures, and ideologies. Words are the building blocks of stories, legends, and sagas. The language in songs and poetry cut us deep, connecting us to each other and to the world we live in.
COVID-19 has created a new vernacular. We have repurposed language to fit the unfamiliar circumstances we find ourselves in. Epidemic, pandemic and plague seemed antiquated a year ago. Like looking at tintypes of relatives long dead, these words were a thing of curiosity. What was it like back then? They marked periods in history that still send chills up and down our spines: smallpox, bubonic plague, yellow fever, Spanish flu, and polio. Now these words are part of our daily conversations.
The oxymoron, social-distancing is at the forefront of COVID-19 vocabulary. We yearn to be close to the people we love while standing six feet away in fear our hugs and kisses will spread the virus through droplets, a word formerly used to describe the first sign of rain. Other words once signaling a cold or the flu now mark the ominous list of COVID-19 symptoms: muscle aches, fatigue, fever, chills, cough, headache, nausea, etc. There are medical and scientific terms few of us had encountered before the pandemic: respirator, ventilator, mRNA vaccine, personal protective equipment (PPE), asymptomatic, herd immunity, super spreader.
Words are malleable, their definitions changing over time. They shapeshift and morph to fit our circumstances. The language once used in the mental health profession to diagnose someone are now blanket terms describing large swaths of society: Stress, depression, anxiety, anger, loss, grief, hopelessness, and melancholy sum up a collective malaise that’s hard to shake while joy, happiness, security, contentment, comfort, and pleasure are pushed to the fringe of our consciousness as we try to navigate our daily lives. The words we attach to our feelings define our moods. How much more can we take when the media reminds us, “There will be dark days ahead.” Things will get worse before they get better.” We should applaud ourselves for just getting out of bed in the morning.
And what about the host of confusing vocabulary our elected officials have introduced to save us from ourselves? There are shelter-in-place, stay-at-home, and lockdown orders. We are told to isolate and quarantine. What do they mean and how do they differ? With the economy in shambles, we wait as Congress fights over words before dispersing stimulus checks. Years of hate speech culminated in a deadly riot at the United States Capitol leading us to consider the implications of words like insurrection, impeachment and evoking the 25th Amendment. Gone are the days of simple wordplay. Many of us have lost the inclination to sit down and tackle the New York Times crossword puzzle or laugh whole heartedly at a joke. We are under attack by forces both seen and unseen; a mutating virus at the foreground of our battles, distorting our language while upending our lives.
My husband and I watched the movie, Rebecca starring Lily James and Armie Hammer (It’s streaming on Netflix.) I had read the book many years ago while taking a class called Traditions of the Novel for my MA at Northern Arizona University (NAU). The book was written in 1938 by Daphne Du Maurier. The story is about a young woman who falls in love with Englishman, Maxim de Winter, a widower ten years her senior. He is wealthy; she is a lady’s maid whose parents died of pneumonia. The couple marry and move to Maderley, Maxim’s family estate. The new, young wife, Mrs. de Winter, struggles to find her place among the memories of Maxim’s deceased wife, Rebecca. The book was all the rage when it was first published and was made into a movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1940 starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. It was adapted for film fourteen more times over the years including the version we watched.
The movie’s ending was different than I remembered. I was curious and found the book Rebecca in my studio. Flipping through the pages, I was transported to a world of words and ideas that were written after World War I when English estates were still tended to by servants, when sex was suggested rather than graphically depicted on the page, and when, unknown to Du Maurier or to her readership, World War II would soon ignite, setting the world’s political stage ablaze. Du Maurier’s words reached across time and rescued me, if only temporarily, from the worry and uncertainty I’ve come accustomed to since the pandemic swept into our lives a year ago.
Today I watched Joe Biden’s inauguration speech where he spoke of unity and healing. Powerful words of reconciliation given the effect language has had on our country in recent years. Americans like the Loggerhead Shrike possess a resourceful and resilient nature that transcends defamatory language. I felt a flutter of hope as President Biden’s words reached across the aisle and into our homes and communities.
Poet, Robert Frost said, “In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.”
No truer words have ever been spoken.