Words are subtle and powerful things. Ten billion different things can be said with words, from rage to romance, with a multidimensional gradient of meanings and emotions in between those two markers. There are big words and small words out there: tiny little one- and two- and three- and four-letter words which will be a first-grader’s initial exposure to language learning, then two- and three- and four- and five-syllable verbal jaw breakers which will be the attention-getters, that mark the topic of discussion or the focus of interest. Even more interestingly, though the big, long words get all the attention sometimes, it’s the small ones that have the capacity to define the meaning of a phrase or a sentence.
Among my first lessons in this nuanced ability words have was with a film I first saw as a young teen: A Patch of Blue, with Elizabeth Hartman as Selina D’Arcy, a blind girl, and Sidney Poitier as Gordon Ralfe, the African-American who befriends her. There is a scene, later in the movie as their friendship has evolved, which holds to me a singularly striking example of the significance of one word in its ability to change the meaning and intention of a statement:
Selina D'Arcy: [Gordon kisses Selina on forehead] Was that a kiss?
Gordon Ralfe: [Nodding] It was a kiss.
Selina D'Arcy: Kiss me again.
[Gordon kisses her forehead again]
Selina D'Arcy: [Grabs Gordon's face and kisses him on the lips] Oh Gordon... Gordon... oh I wish I'd never been done over.
Gordon Ralfe: [Pulls her away] What did you say?
Selina D'Arcy: Nothing.
Gordon Ralfe: I'm sorry. You were much sinned against.
Selina D'Arcy: Are you angry with me. Do you think I'm bad... dirty?
Gordon Ralfe: No I don't.
Selina D'Arcy: I said what I did because I love you so much.
Gordon Ralfe: I know why you said it. I'm glad you said it. You brought me back to Earth.
Selina D'Arcy: I didn't want you to come back to Earth. I wanted you to make love with me.
Did you catch it? Just one word, one change of a phrase heard and used likely millions of times, yet that one simple alteration throws an entirely different light on its meaning, in addition to demonstrating a depth of understanding of the one who made that change. Wanting to fulfill the arc of the relationship Selina shared with Gordon, she said, “I wanted you to make love with me.” Not: “make love to me” but “with me.” Selina doesn’t want to be the object of a proposition defined by a preposition. She’s known enough of that in her exploitive mother. Her goal is to become the shared and sharing participant in love and joy and intimacy with someone who has treated her as someone far more than merely a blind girl. Whether it was author Elizabeth Kata or screenwriter Guy Green who noted that subtle difference, the fact is that it is there.
And in the mind of this author, it is no small difference.