Cuba and Other Strange Words

“All my life I've looked at words as though I were seeing them for the first time.” ~Ernest Hemmingway

I’m working on a scene in my work-in-progress about a lector in a Cuban cigar factory. While I was sitting there, thinking about who he was and what motivated him, my mind locked on to the word “Cuba.

Cuba. Cuba. Cuba. Cuba. Cuba. Cuba. Cuba. Cuba. Cuba. Cuba. Cuba. Cuba. Cubacubacubacuba. Ubac. Ubac. Ubac. Ubacu. Bacu. Bacu. Bacu.

And so on and so on. After about thirty seconds of repetition, with emphasis on different points of the series of suddenly meaningless letters, the word—which had always reasonably represented a place in the world and in my mind—became absurd.

Pick any word: value, dog, wine, flower, ratio. Repeat it a few times and see if it doesn’t suddenly sound ridiculous. Words that previously had meaning are reduced to mere linguiform inputs that feel funny in your mouth. But of course, that only makes sense. Words are simply publicly agreed-upon symbols that express ideas that are already understood in some other basic system. They’re placeholders with no intrinsic substance until we ascribe meaning to them. They transport an idea, then vanish.

But back to Cuba. After a few minutes of altered thinking, I look at it again and recognize it for its original meaning. It’s an island in the Caribbean, a beautiful place with tobacco fields and cigar factories where my character worked for fifty-one years. The value of both the word and the place are restored pleasantly in my mind, and I feel at once calmed and excited by the richness of these little communication packages.

Tell me: what words sound ridiculous or marvelous to you?