Thursday, 4 August 2011

On being the best

This is a post representing years of thought on the subject. As such it's likely to be hugely garbled, but I'll try and keep some kind of thread running through it. I almost did it the other day, but couldn't get started. Luckily this morning I read this and it gave me an in. Please don't blame her. Blame me.

I think the English language is lacking some words. Descriptive words. Words for the most important things of all. One of the most often repeated facts you're likely to hear is that the Eskimo people have x number of words for snow. What this fact does not impart is the brilliance of this, its usefulness. If you live in the frozen Arctic Tundra, it's no good telling someone that it snowed. Of course it snowed. What kind is it? That's what you really need to know. You don't want to be wearing the snowshoe for fluffy snow only to find that it's that gritty, powdery stuff. Things like that could easily save your life, even, if you find yourself getting chased by a polar bear or a walrus.

I think English doesn't have enough words for love. Before you go all Roget on me, I am fully aware that it has plenty of synonyms for love. But what kind of love? I've heard it said that the vagueness and ambiguity of the English language is what gives British people their famous sense of humour. And this is undeniably the case, when you have to use the same word to express love for: a life partner, a best friend, a pet, a sister, a parent. Yes, that's right. You want to have sex with your cat. A ha ha ha.

In recent times I'd thought that the same thing applied to the word "best", in context of "best friend". That piece I linked to at the start brings it into sharp focus. It is, of course, possible to have more than one best friend. It is possible, too, for one individual to be many people's best friend. Someone could be no-one's best friend, but still a much loved individual to many people. The word "best" is misleading in this case.

However, I now think that this is an incidence where ambiguity is a good and necessary thing. To call anything "best" implies that all other things are left wanting. How can you make such a distinction when you are dealing with such a subjective, organic and emotive subject?

Television lies to us. On television, best friends come in distinct, reciprocal, pairs. Such perfect units do of course exist in real life. I know of one very good example off hand, where each has known the other for pretty much their entire lives. However, this isn't the norm. If you asked me to name the best friends of my friends, I reckon I might be able to take an educated guess in about 50% of the cases. Television would baulk at such grim odds. How would anyone know who to root for?

I probably have half a dozen or more people that I could, without fear of contradiction and with no implicit criticism of any of the others, happily describe as my best friend. I imagine that they all know who they are. Some of them I have told, which would make knowing who they are an easier piece of deduction. I don't know if anyone considers me to be their "best" friend, in the Hollywood sense. I suspect the answer is as delightfully vague as life and language themselves: sometimes yes, sometimes no. This isn't some sort of needy plea for attention, nor is it something which keeps me awake at night. I feel lucky and honoured to have the friends that I do. Semantics doesn't come into it.

Life is complicated, fraught and beautiful. It goes without saying that language is the same.

5 comments:

Betsy said...

I had a similar conversation recently when a magazine editor on Twitter asked if your lover could be your best friend. The question expanded a bit into what a best friend is, really, and what they're for, and I commented that I have some best friends, but that I don't think I'm necessarily THEIR best friend, but that that's fine with me. Someone else thought that was unusually mature, but I don't think so, I think an expectation that it's got to be reciprocal is a bit immature.

I don't really know how to define "best friend" so I'm not upset if I'm not fitting that mould for every individual I know, you know? I have good friends and I hope I'm as good to them as they are to me.

Merry Mary said...

Heh. I was conscious of the sort oflinguistic weirdness of it when I posted it. And I wondered when I got an email from you the other day whether I was "the best" or "a best". I hoped it was the latter, but would have been flattered if the former.

I think it makes more sense if you think "these are my best friends" in comparison to the scummy friends beneath them. People who occupy special parts of your heart, who you'd do anything for, etc.

You're undoubtedly one of mine and would bash you about if you ever dared think otherwise.

dotmund said...

Thank you both. I feel that language can be a bit too lumpen when it has to describe really important things. I've already written a blog on here about my feelings about the social networking sites overstretching the word "friend", so this is an extension of that, I suppose.

However, from your comments it seems that language has nevertheless done its job and successfully conveyed my feelings. And my feelings towards both of you, which I'm sure you both know are referred to in the piece :)

Betsy said...

awwww! *group best fwiend hug!*

Prolificus said...

I know that you probably know this, and it's not my fault that I know this, it's someone else's that you know, because I heard it on QI, but:

The eskimos having lots of words for snow is a myth. They have the same amount of words English does. We have: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Types_of_snow

Check out the on the ground section. Awesome, possum.

There's also the wikipedia article on Eskimo words for snow, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eskimo_words_for_snow, that talks about how there are European circumpolar grous with lots and lots of words for snow.

And language is beautiful, I agree. It's the best.

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