By Anthony Deyal
When Polonius asked Hamlet what he was reading and Hamlet replied, “words, words, words” he wasn’t joking at all. There are some words that do double, triple and multiple duties and, like bodybuilders full of supplements, they have homonyms (words with identical spelling and pronunciations but with different meanings) and even homographs (same written word but different meanings).
One common example is the four-letter word “love” which we apply to any object, emotion or event from spouses to cars, animals and the latest object of affection that catches our fancy. The Bible tells us to love our neighbour as ourselves but in tennis, love-all is a tie, something that I get every Christmas. Some of us love life itself and, as one of my teachers said to me a very long time ago, “Deyal, you really love to play the arse you know.” And I replied, “Holy Mother of God, bray for our sinners now…” and made things much worse for myself.
There is a category for words with multiple meanings in the Guinness Book of Records. The record for the word which tops the charts in this group was set by the Oxford Dictionary and it is the word “set”. According to Guinness, “The word with the most meanings in English is the verb ‘set’, with 430 senses listed in the Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, published in 1989. The word commands the longest entry in the dictionary at 60,000 words, or 326,000 characters.”
If you want to know some of the applications of “set”, get ready, on your marks and get set. You could put something on the table so you set it down or you glue it and it is set, sometimes for life. Or it could be part of a movie set or the house in which you finally settle down. You can even set it in emeralds as a fancy bracelet or, like this article, set it in Times New Roman 12. If the 12 Old Romans ever get to find out I prefer the new ones, there will be a terrible set-to and that could set-up a war.
My wife, Indranie, sets countless plants and when she tries to get me involved, I set off on some urgent business, setting an example that our daughter Jasmine sometimes follows but I really set the record, not straight, but when her face sets up at my first mention of having to go out, I leave before Indranie makes a set of noise. Despite all I’ve written so far about “set”, the matter is not settled and there are a whole set of meanings still to come, over 400 of them. But I don’t want to upset any of you so I will settle for the ones I drew to your attention.
While the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “Oxford” as a “low shoe laced or tied over the instep”, I suppose it springs from jealousy because Oxford already has the successor to “set” as the word with the most meanings waiting in the wings. In 2037, seventeen years from now, Oxford will release or complete the first print run of its newest English Dictionary in which it will set a new record with the word “Run” which will have 645 meanings in all. Right now, let me move from the low-down to a rundown of what these many meanings include.
Computers “running” programmes, vehicles “running” on gas, election candidates “run” for office, and then run their mouths, or fail to run their ministries properly and pretty soon are run out of power but not before giving you a run for your money until they run aground. Some are little runts and there was a Trinidad athlete who got so mixed up that, as my friend Bengo, disappointed by the country’s poor showing in an Olympic event, observed angrily, “His mouth runs and his feet smell.”
There are at least ten words, including “go” and “put” which have hundreds of definitions. But before I go further, let me put my cards on the table and tell you that my word of choice, especially in this Christmas season, the one that I never take lightly is “light.” I grew up right after the Second World War and we had to use candlelight, not just for carolling at Christmas, but for everything else. We also had “pitch-oil”, paraffin or kerosene lights to read by and, the occasional “gas-lamp” but they cost more than we could afford. I was eight, filling water by the standpipe over the road, when the yellow truck of the Electricity Commission arrived to “connect” us with electricity and the whole neighbourhood came out to watch and comment.
I was elated because, as a serial reader and a reader of serials, the “torchlight” and lamplight hurt my eyes after a while. When my mother opened the door of the new fridge my father had bought, you should have seen her face light up.
However light and its mystique go back to the beginning of time when the Lord said, “Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night” and the faces of Adam and Eve lighted up and they remained light-hearted for a while until the self-conscious Eve took flight from the light. While the Three Wise Men followed a starlight, we were having fun with star-lights in the yard on Christmas Eve. Once, when my father did not pay the light bill, we faced a conundrum – we were delighted. Every year we celebrated Divali, the Hindu Festival of Lights, and “lighted up” for Christmas.
Every morning my mother woke up my father and I before daylight, and the light of dawn met me trudging through the dewy Savannah grass on my way to the bus-stop. Even so, and even now, I remain light-hearted and delight in small victories and holidays like Christmas which set my heart alight with the combination of family present and presents, and memories of time past. This is definitely not a time, when we are allowed by wives busily “dressing up” the place, including the Christmas tree lights, to be taken lightly. It is the one time in the entire Caribbean when God, regardless of how we call Him, is totally among us and in our hearts and minds. As Maya Angelou wrote in “Amazing Peace”, “Hope is born again in the faces of our children” and, in the “The Lights of Christmas,” Marjorie Morrison says,
So, Christmas lights of red and green,
Of amber, blue, and white,
We look beyond the lovely scene,
To God our Christmas Light.
*Tony Deyal was last seen asking what Adam said on the day before Christmas, “It’s Christmas Eve.”