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The great archetypal activities of human society are all permeated with play from the start. Take language for instance, that first and supreme instrument which man shapes in order to communicate, to teach, to command. Language allows him to distinguish, to establish, to state things, in short to name them and by naming them raise them into the domain of the spirit.

In the making of speech and language the spirit is continually “sparking” between matter and mind, as it were, playing with this wondrous nominative faculty. Behind every abstract expression there lie the boldest of metaphors, and every metaphor is a play upon words. Thus, giving expression to life, man creates a second, poetic world along side the world of nature.

Johan Huizinga – Homo Ludens

Huizinga himself was a bit of a poet – a visionary who saw through the world of matter and mechanics and found ‘spirit’. Evolutionarily speaking, by naming things, humans first sought to transform them into objects and tools, enter them into the world of utility, of malleability. The shift to simile and metaphor came as we became more adept with language, but who knows? Perhaps the first cave girl saw her guy beating an animal over the head and, as she was doing the same with a chestnut on a rock, made her friends laugh by imitating him – a sort of proto-metaphoric action. Likening one thing to another is a leap into abstraction, and in this case a playful one.

Of course as a Dutchman, a Germanic speaker, Huizinga meant the word spirit here not in any religious way, but as an essence, as in the ‘spirit of the law’, or as in Zeitgeist, the ‘spirit of the age’. This made me wonder what exactly is spirit and I came up with this provisional definition –

Spirit is the emergent, the transcendent… in fact the emotional essence the experience of which, and maybe as well the naming of which, defines human consciousness or existence. Spirit is an urge toward evanescence, an urge toward union, re-union.

The drive toward this is inborn in humans. Call it the ‘divine spark’ (while redeeming that word to mean something of inexplicable provenance because, after all, to presume to know the Origin Narrative is to blaspheme). 

Words are inherently aligned with the immaterial, the symbolic; their meanings are therefore mutable, manipulable – they can be used to enlighten, to uplift or to imprison. It is our choice, and this is an exercise of will I’m talking about – using words consciously.

But I divagate… and really I prefer Huizinga’s drift here, toward play. So my first vector is to consider the way we use words and language as playforms.

Consider conversation – isn’t it a form of play? Ideas and thoughts and words are bounced back and forth – like a volley in a tennis game. At least that’s how I like to see it. Yes, if the subject is serious, one’s use of words would best aspire to becoming an art form (which can also be seen as a form of play!). But I’m thinking specifically of playing with words… most likely as one is conversing with a friend, an acquaintance or especially a lover.

For instance, how do you color your experiences as you relate them? When deep in a complaint to a friend, can you find words to signal that you don’t really want to be taken so seriously, or choose words that gently spoof your own behavior?

The words we choose inflect everything. They allow us to alter the tone of a critique or even of an accusation and lighten it with a humorous tweak. They allow us to cajole. And most definitely they allow us to create. When we choose well, we become players, as in theatrical players on a stage (otherwise called actors but let’s tell it like it is, these are people who love to play… other parts, other personae!) Beware with whom you choose to become playful; mistakes can be made when your audience lacks a sense of humor. But this is rare. You just have to get a sense of what they might find funny or appealing. And that is hardly linguistic skill – that is pure intuition and EQ.

Strangely, I feel I’ve meandered full circle though Huizinga’s thinking… in my own way tying ostensibly disparate functions into elements of a working whole? To speak is to potentially to play is possibly to transcend and from there to speak and play again and again, an eternal spiral upward!

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