You think about words and how they came to mean what they do. You use them all the time and every once in a while you pause to question why it means what it does or sounds the way it does. And, every once in a while, a word you’ve written hundreds, even thousands, of times doesn’t look right.
It happened with the word “issue.” It was automatically issued from my brain and through my fingers to the keyboard. My four typing fingers stopped cold.
“That can’t be right,” I said to myself. It sounds like a sneeze and looks like a foreign word. I looked it up and it was correct. Now I was a bit frightened, as if I was discovering an early symptom of something incurable. Would this start happening with other words until every one I wrote or read looked unfamiliar, foreign?
Could this be the onset of senility? Maybe it was early Alzheimer’s, which itself a word that looks a little weird. Then I remember it is some guy’s last name, and there are some goofy names out there— many of them pronounced nothing like the way they look.
When the familiar suddenly becomes strange and alien, it can be scary. It’s a typical plot twist in horror movies. Some likeable, seemingly harmless character turns out to be the serial killer hacking off heads in the college dorms. That’s sort the way it is when words and names you write and say just about every day seem, even briefly, unfamiliar. Well, maybe not that scary.
But it was fleeting and it hasn’t happened to me lately, and that means I still have time before I descend into babbling idiocy. Not that there is anything wrong with being an idiot or a babbler. Where would politics be without them?
Occasionally I see my last name in print and it looks very strange, as if it didn’t belong to me. It’s that “illi” part in the middle, I suppose, with the “S” at the beginning and at the end. On the other hand, it’s sort of cool to have “skill” as part of your name and not so cool for the “kill” part. Were I ever arrested for murder, the newspaper headline writers would have a field day— “Cops Nab Skillings for Chilling Thrill Killings.”
Getting back to issue, its temporary strangeness got me to take a closer look. You see, we use the word a lot. I have used it a lot. An issue is a problem that is not being resolved. That’s an original dictionary definition as a noun. There are issues in contract negotiations, usually revolving around what is fair to both sides. Once it is resolved, it is no longer an issue. If it continues to be unresolved, it becomes a controversy. There are often strong opinions surrounding issues, but only agreement will make an issue go away. Even though politics, government and religion seem to be awash in issues, most of us use the word in a lot of other ways that seem to have nothing to do with its original meaning.
For instance, I spent a good part of my working life putting out issues. Not that I ever resolved much of anything, but as an editor for weekly and daily newspapers, every publication was an issue— in more ways than one. I guess it came from the verb, which means to give out something, and eventually one of its meanings became “to publish.” One of its earlier meanings, bordering on biblical, was a quaint way of describing your progeny or immediate descendants. That’s right, your children are your issue.
But the word is tacked on to just about anything that represents a problem. Just the other morning, I apologized for missing a message by explaining that I’ve been having “email issues.” There are marital issues, drug issues, communication issues and anger issues. They all seem to downgrade important problems into something that isn’t really your fault. What would you call having problems with your kids? Why issue issues, naturally. If your children are antisocial, belligerent or continually in trouble, it’s just easier to say that they have issues.
Definitions of issue also include “subject,” “copy,” “production,” “publication,” “matter” and “question.”
It’s going to be a difficult word for me to abandon, if not recognize, because it is so utilitarian. It is tempting to use, in the opinion of Joseph Epstein, essayist and author, because it denotes “a happy vagueness” that insulates our flaws and failures from closer scrutiny. Words, too, have a certain presence and character, and some become so commonplace they lose their meaning.