Or perhaps dream words are more like eggs: smooth and cool, not quite round, potentially edible, potentially messy—and representing the beginning of something that might hatch out, grow feathers, and fly away. Here’s a famous egg-spert on words:
“‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The questions is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master—that’s all.’
Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again, ‘They’ve a temper, some of them—particularly verbs, they’re the proudest—adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs—however, I can manage the whole lot! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!’”
Dreams scramble the language! And we egg them on! Dream puns can be real groaners. Or brilliant. Or both. Which is to be master? Who’s making this stuff up? Are we adding the meaning ourselves, folding everything imaginable into the omelet? Not just spinach but seaweed! Not just mushrooms but marshmallows! I have to admit, I’m occasionally skeptical of the way we can wrestle words into meaning just about anything…
For example, when a dream setting is “the mall,” and we’re playing with words, we can shift the “m” one space to the left… so “the mall” becomes “them all.” Like Alice, I’m not sure about this. It seems like too much of a stretch. But that’s just me. Others have found a lot of significance in the malleability of “the mall”—and they’re certainly right that a mall is where we find “them all”… all of them, all of the anonymous other people whose opinions make a mall into what it is. So, perhaps they’re right. Perhaps Humpty Dumpty’s right. Words are tricky and proud, but manageable if you know how to play with them. And “the play’s the thing” (that’s Shakespeare—a master of wordplay if there ever was one).
Okay. Enough fooling around. Dreams are, indeed, ingenious with words—sometimes there’s no doubt at all that the word play makes sense on many different levels. And even when it is a stretch, a play on words can add dimensions to the dream that might not have been recognized otherwise. A humorous pun can open the mind. A riddle can help us ask new questions about old problems.
Sometimes, when a word or phrase in a dream seems to demand my attention, I look it up and find it has multiple meanings that are absolutely apt. These may be meanings I’ve forgotten, or meanings I’ve never heard before. It’s always useful to ask myself why the dream has chosen this particular word or phrase: what makes this way of saying something better than another?
In fact, I believe that the words spoken or heard within the dream, and the descriptive words I use as I’m writing or telling the dream, always have significance. Sometimes, I see significance right away, and sometimes I have to play with the words for a while, or let others play with them, before anything makes sense. And, occasionally, nonsense just remains nonsense… at least to my conscious mind. When this happens, however, I trust that what’s nonsense to my conscious mind right now might still make a deeper kind sense… There’s more to me than my conscious mind, and dreams are bigger than I am.
Here’s one where the word play definitely makes some sense to me:
Seeking Erin at the Fair: Holly and I are away from home and we get a text from our cat-sitter, Erin. The subject line reads “One Dead,” and we’re horrified. Desperately, I read the text for more information—but it’s just rambling existential philosophizing about what we risk when we leave loved ones behind.
Has one of our cats died? We must find Erin and make her tell us what she meant by this cryptic message. We go to a big fair (somehow pet-related) to look for her. We encounter many people in bright costumes at the fair, and keep seeking Erin, asking everyone if they’ve seen her. But she’s nowhere to be found…
Finally, we begin to think everything’s going to be okay. The message was about something else, and we’ll go home and find that the cats are all right.
One scene from this dream (too long to include) hinted at an overall theme I might otherwise have missed… In that scene, I complain about someone’s “unfair” behavior. As I wrote the dream in my journal, I noticed that my dream title included the words “…at the Fair.” —Hm. Could “fairness” be an issue here?
Over the past few months, I’ve been encountering so many obstacles and such painful losses, just when things should be getting easier. It doesn’t seem fair! I’ve been struggling with disappointment, and even hopelessness. So, in this dream, I’m exploring a “fair” place, to see what I might find. What’s fair, or unfair about this quest? Will I find what I’m seeking in fairness, or elsewhere?
Of course, the phrase, “One Dead,” and the name, “Erin,” stand out as distinctive language, too. The dream seems to be drawing attention to these words. So, leaving all other details aside, what is their significance?
Well, there’s certainly a literal angle: Erin is, in fact, our cat-stitter’s name. Also, I’ve been worrying about our youngest cat who has health problems, and this dream occurred while we were away from home and had not yet received a report on how the cats were doing—so I was a bit anxious, and one of the three cats was of particular concern.
But “One Dead” is an odd wording. And Erin’s name was unnecessarily repeated, again and again, throughout the dream. If you look at these words, listen to the sound of them, what do you see and hear?
Maybe you’ll see and hear something else—but, for me, “One Dead” definitely sounds like “wounded.” And the name “Erin” made me think of the word “erring,” and then “errant.” There are two meanings of “errant”—one refers to errors; the other is about being on a journey (as in “knight errant”). Both meanings came to mind when I sounded out “Erin,” but I had to look them up to get the full picture.
From these few words alone, without any further exploration, the dream already speaks to me. I receive a message about woundedness—and I go to a place where fairness is possible, seeking information from the one who sent the message. But the one who sent the message, the one who understands what woundedness means, is someone on a journey, someone who learns through mistakes… I look for her, but she is not here. She has already given what she has to give. I have to understand that I am on a journey, I make mistakes and learn from them, and I am reminding myself that wounds, and deaths, happen on the way. This is fair, because it happens to all of us. No one is to blame.
Of course, there’s more to the dream, but this much is enough for now. I’m grateful. And Humpty Dumpty was wrong. Managing words, managing life, forcing things to be meaningful and “fair” on my own terms isn’t possible. I discover what matters as I go along. And the dream speaks its own language, sending me a message I need to receive, from a source I can’t trace. I won’t get a perfect explanation of what it all means, but I’m getting the gist of it, reading between the lines, and playing with these peculiar words as the dream offers them.
Impenetrability! Or not?