A Word Dies When Spoken for the Last Time

For some odd reason beyond my comprehension, the word “spill” inhabits a place in my brain that causes it to make regular appearances in my writing. Eighty-five of my 2,38 posts, more than three percent, include the word. Compare that to sixty-six posts in which “damage” was used. But “emotion” appears in a whopping 298 posts, or more than eleven percent of my prolificacy (it’s actually a word). But back to the word that prompted this post: spill. I don’t recall ever thinking about the breadth and range of definitions the word commands. The definitions with which I am most familiar suggest a random or accidental discharge of liquids (oil, milk, blood) or other materials (bolts, grains of rice, flour) from a container. I use the word to suggest a discharge (e.g., words spilling from my fingers). And I’m familiar with informal uses (spilling the beans, spilling secrets). But how about the word used to identify stray and unnecessary or unwanted lights in a theatrical production, such as “spill lights?” And, when reminded, I know the meaning of spill as in “he took a spill and broke his leg.” The latter usage suggests falling or being thrown from a horse or vehicle (e.g., motorcycle). The results of unintended spills also are called spills, e.g., “she saw the spill on the floor and knew instantly the children had been playing in the kitchen.”

If I were of a mind to do the work, I probably could find information on the frequency of usage of the word “spill” over time, but I’m a slothful researcher today. Instead, I’ll simply speculate that usage of the word has declined over time. And I’ll offer my prognostication that its usage will continue to decline until, as some point in the future, the word will be spoken for the last time. That will mark the death of the word. To borrow and adjust a phrase: “A word dies when spoken for the last time.”

Wordplay is not my vocation but my avocation. But my definition of wordplay is not the same one you might find in the dictionary. Instead of (well, in addition to) clever or witty use of words, I define it to mean the pleasurable examination of words and their flexibility or lack thereof. I’ll expect that definition to find its way into Merriam-Webster at some point in the next century. Probably about the same time “spill” will be uttered for the last time. I suspect the last utterance of “spill” will take place in a kitchen in Laugharne, a town in Carmarthenshire, Wales. Dylan Thomas spent the last four years of his life there. He wrote the poem, ‘Over Sir John’s Hill,’ while he was there. Thomas died the year I was born, 1953. Of course this business about Dylan Thomas is neither here nor there with regard to the last utterance of “spill.”

A single woman, Amalie Hughs, will use the word when speaking of her betrothed. I predict her comment will go something like this: “I was to be married to Finley Jones in September, but he took a spill from his boat last Thursday and he drowned. I suppose the marriage will have to be postponed.” Amalie will not realize until a friend points it out that her marriage to Finley Jones will not be postponed but, instead, cancelled or simply will not take place. One doesn’t marry a dead man, especially a dead man who fell from a boat and whose body was never recovered. That notwithstanding, Amalie will never again speak the word “spill,” nor will anyone else. The word will die the moment she speaks it. Unlike the death of a person, the death of a word is not marked with either celebration or solemnity. It simply occurs. It is not even known until years later, when an anthropological linguist or some such beast comes upon evidence of its existence. Only then will its demise be accorded appropriate recognition.

In an ideal world, I would be able to write more about Amalie Hughs and what happened after the unfortunate death of the man to whom she was to be married. I cannot write more about her at the moment because I smell evidence, drifting in from the kitchen, that my wife is producing something the I predict I will find extremely interesting, even more interesting than Amalie. I may examine Amalie in more depth when I am older. And I may explore Laugharne and Dylan Thomas to the extent that they retain my interest.

Some days I write. Other days I simply put words down in the hope they will turn into sentences and, eventually, into paragraphs.

Off to the kitchen!

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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