A word can take root and lodge in your psyche and a whole host of memories, emotions and reactions are then triggered when you hear the word again. I had a powerful experience of this recently.
The reaction can be irrational and disproportionate to the speaker’s intention on one level; on another level, it can be deeply revealing, both for the receiver and for the speaker too perhaps, if they reflect. And on yet another level, the reactions, lodged in an individual psyche, can be revealing of the personal history of the word itself, its own unique journey of meaning, development and effect witnessed in and over time.
This is the verbal equivalent of Proust’s famous Madeleine. See www.haverford.edu/psych/ddavis/p109g/proust.html
Tasting the Madeleine takes Proust back in time and triggers sensations from that earlier time. Hearing a word that is important for you, can be like a pressure point, a trigger to react, based on the past associations you have for that word, now felt and reactivated in this present moment.
Who would have thought the word ‘mate’ and the Yoga Sutras could be so intimately connected?
Nothing destroys vāsana (latent impressions), only they become ineffective (Yoga Sutra C2 v4).
– TKV Desikachar January 11th 1995
But saṃskāra (tendencies) can be fed by vāsana (latent impressions).” (Yoga Sūtra C4 v9)
– TKV Desikachar January 12th 1995
“Saṃskāra (tendencies) is so powerful, it can lead you to act without thinking.” (Yoga Sūtra C4 v11)
– TKV Desikachar January 12th 1995
[Translations/quotations from Paul Harvey]
So I took a little time to investigate the chain of reactions and this also took me into the history of the word itself.
When a man calls another man ‘mate’, that feels like some loose link – a builder’s mate or a drinking mate in the pub. I heard the word used a few times in this way last night. When a man calls a woman ‘mate’, that intuitively feels like whatever the female equivalent of emasculation is – to me anyway. The closest word for this is ‘defeminise’ which may not even exist. When a woman calls a man ‘mate’, that feels like she’s trying to be one of the blokes. And when a woman calls a woman ‘mate’, well, that just doesn’t happen, does it?
The first time I was called ‘mate’ was many years ago when a close male friend I’d been helping through a really tough time, suddenly called me ‘mate’ at the end of a phone call. That was just the way he signed off with his male friends when they were planning to go to the pub. I felt really distanced and emotionally pushed away. My stuff no doubt. But somehow I blamed that word ‘mate’ for all those feelings and stored that linkage of the word with the feelings unconsciously at a deep level.
I guess the bad feeling was still there as a latent impression because when, quite a few years later, another man called me ‘mate’, it resurfaced strongly. A completely different situation, a friend of his had introduced me and the group I was with, as this man’s ‘followers’, a word that really annoyed me – maybe because it was partly true! I felt we were his friends, we were loyal supporters, and I wanted to be acknowledged as such. I had a brief chat with him to say this, and he seemed baffled, telling me that I was a ‘walking mate’. I was baffled and astonished by the word which felt so far from the situation as I experienced it, and felt intensely male to me. The word came at me unexpectedly and in the moment of utterance, it didn’t feel any better than ‘followers’ – although on reflection, understanding the context of the entire situation, I realise it was actually intended as confirmation of a genuine connection.
At that time, I didn’t realise that my response was coloured by the earlier incident.
So the third time when I heard the word from another man, all the conditions were right for me to react without thinking once again.
Can I blame my reactions on just a simple word? As Oysterband say in their poignant song ‘Put out the lights’, ‘every place that I have been, leaves its message on my skin’. So it is for me with words. Some words have a resonance, a history, their own personal etymology, there to be resurfaced in the next utterance, the next hearing, the next meeting. A word is like a touch on the skin, a press of the hand, torch paper waiting to be lit.
Of course a word is also intimately connected with its intonation. In my first example the word was uttered in a careless matey way and that is no doubt part of the reason I took against it so strongly and why it embedded itself in my operating system to be retriggered. The second time round it was offered in a kind of bemused, explanatory way – ‘why are you upset? We’re all mates.’ I am not sure of the intonation of the third utterance.
The other morning, when I opened my Facebook account there was a comment from an Indian male friend and he called me ‘mate’ – I was astonished! Here it was happening again and right while I was trying to get to the bottom of this ‘mate’ phenomenon. I noted that the other friends he’d responded to on the same topic hadn’t been called ‘mate’. So I asked him what he meant.
‘One who customarily associates with another; a companion; an associate; a person you know well and regard with affection and trust! This is what I conjure up as a mate. I use the term for like-minded/close friends….in a very asexual manner. Though the term originated to mean a biological partner amongst animals but the tenor I apply is a tenor which the Aussies have given to the word!’
Good stuff, most of it – but I’m not very comfortable being asexualised (to coin another word). Interesting too that he links ‘mate’ with ‘partner’, another word I dislike.
You’ve probably heard the illustration that Eve was made not from Adam’s feet so that she would be beneath him and not from his head so that she would be above him, but from a rib from his side so that she would be equal to him. She was a helpmate for him…
Popular culture seems to have lost this Helpmate ideal and instead treats women as Playmates. She is treated as a sex toy, a servant, or as a slave. The woman is no longer equal to her man.’
(Helpmate not Playmate – Women of the Bible 1, Jeff Carter 2003)
And then there is ‘checkmate’ in chess, a complex strategy game where you’ve got to the final move – and there isn’t one. There’s no way out. You’re a winner or a loser.
Wikipedia defines ‘checkmate’ as follows:
‘Checkmate (frequently shortened to mate) is a situation in chess (and in other boardgames of the chaturanga family) in which one player’s king is threated with capture (in check) and there is no way to meet that threat. Or, simply put, the king is under direct attack and cannot avoid being captured. Delivering checkmate is the ultimate goal in chess: a player who is checkmated loses the game. In normal chess the king is never actually captured – the game ends as soon as the king is checkmated because checkmate leaves the defensive player with no legal moves. In practice, most players resign an inevitably lost game before being checkmated. It is considered bad etiquette to continue playing in a completely hopeless position.’
Where does one go after ‘mate’? Perhaps it is the feeling of being ‘blanked’ and ‘checked’ through the use of the word ‘mate’, the denial of one’s essential feminine Self, that brings out the strong reaction I have, the renewed desire to assert myself as a person and as a woman: ‘Feel my presence!’, ‘I am still here!’
Going deeper into the etymology of mate in more depth (Wikipedia again):
‘It comes from a Persian verb mandan, meaning ‘to remain’, which is cognate with the Latin word manco. It means ‘remained’ in the sense of ‘abandoned’ and the formal translation is ‘surprised’, in the military sense of ‘ambushed’ (not in the sense of ‘astonished’). So the king is in mate when he is ambushed, at a loss, or abandoned to his fate.’
Certainly for me in all three of my examples there was a feeling of being both surprised and feeling my essential Self abandoned in that moment of ‘mate’; and also at a loss.
Have I got it wrong? Is this all the result of some lingering cultural dissonance, the inner ear of an American who’s been in the UK for several decades but still can’t quite hear an isolated word as it’s intended? I would be intrigued to hear your responses to the word ‘mate’ and also about other words which have left a deep impression on you.
For me the question is, now that I’ve got a grip on the personal power of ‘mate’ over me, how will I react next time? The latent impressions will still be there, the tendencies may still be triggered, but how will I respond? Will I defuse that moment of its emotional intensity, noting it and just letting it pass?