ABOUT 500 WORDS | Columns

Hamlet said it with feeling: Words, words, words

You know how when you stare at a word for long or keep reading it over and over again it loses all meaning? Psychologists call it semantic satiation. Then there is wordnesia. That is when you go blank on the spelling or meaning of a common word. Sometimes the two come together, and you forget who you are, what you are doing on earth and why you were put here in the first place.

There is something about filling out the forms ahead of boarding a flight back to India to entertain such philosophical doubts. You have to get it right or you will remain where you are — in London, in my case — like a fly trapped in a bottle.

The aim of philosophy, Ludwig Wittgenstein told us, is “to show the fly the way out of the fly bottle.” So is the aim of form-filling. This is travel in the time of COVID.

The pleasant lady at the check-in counter at Heathrow said cheerfully, “Yes, this is a problem. Many people have missed their flights to India because of this form issue.” I had visions of spending the rest of the year living at Heathrow airport while my form issue was being sorted out.

The previous day had been spent in joyous pursuit of getting the form right and sending it to India. Repetition is the soul of the bureaucratic system anywhere. And when I wrote in one place that the reason for travel was “returning home after holiday”, and in another “returning home after vacation”, the computer caught me out.

“Vacation” or “holiday” ? it asked in that nasty, superior way computers have when they think they have got you and an arrest is imminent.

That threw me. Suddenly I couldn’t remember what ‘holiday’ meant or indeed how one spelt the word. How many ‘k’s in it? It was wordnesia. I had been at the form for too long and all my words were coming back to me in shades of meaninglessness.

You fill one form, then you fill another, then repeat this, redo that. I have forgotten the number of times I wrote my name. Suddenly, “Suresh” made no sense to me. It didn’t set off any recognition or warm feeling as it usually does. What is this strange word, I asked myself. I had been semantically satiated.

On one occasion, my finger slipped and I typed “Duresh” instead. That word seemed to teeter on the verge of meaning. It occurred to me that our race might die out not because of a meteor falling on us or artificial intelligence taking over but because of a thick finger hitting the wrong key.

My advice is this: if you are planning to travel, add an extra day for filling forms. It will take you time to understand the questions and even more time to ensure that the answers fall into the right slots. Write your name in the column meant for your passport number, and civilization might end.

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Printable version | Jan 22, 2022 2:56:56 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/hamlet-said-it-with-feeling-words-words-words/article37845351.ece

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