vow

This word is, in my opinion, overrepresented in newspaper headlines.

I see it quite regularly. Just in the past week, for instance, the Toronto Star has had two articles with headlines starting “Ontario Liberals vow”… It seems as though nearly any time some official figure states an intention, it is magically transmuted into a vow in order to fit the headline space. While at least this has a mechanical justification, unlike overuse of munch and croon in articles, it is still just not quite right. Not to my ears and eyes, anyway.

An avowal is more than a v and a vowel; indeed, it is so certain that it ends with a double-you-or-nothing (W against 0). Did you ever play “truth, dare, double dare, promise or repeat” in your youth? Vowing is like double daring yourself. Double dog daring yourself, in fact. You just can’t not do what you have vowed. A vow is a promise, and not just any promise: a solemn promise. It is solemn enough to make you say “wow” and solemn enough to harden that first [w] to a [v].

In my world, a vow is a constative, like a promise. It is a speech act; you vow by saying you are vowing (or a synonymous statement). Indeed, it is a deed in a word. I vow is instantly binding, like I promise but even more solemn, or like I swear but without as much religious overtone (you may swear on a Bible, but you just vow, not on anything – other than your honour). The idea that saying I vow was instantly binding seized my young mind for a time; easing myself into a hotel-roof hot tub in Honolulu at age 12, I thought – before I could stop myself – “I vow to stay in this pool for 20 minutes.” And that was that: I had bound myself to it. If I were to get out even at 19 minutes and 48 seconds, I would be that worst of creatures, an oath-breaker. I was pretty heated up by the time the clock released me.

Of course a compulsive thought that wanders across your mind like that need not be taken as a binding commitment; it has not even been uttered to another person. But you see the power that the idea of a vow has. In many times and places there really has been nothing worse a person could be than an oath-breaker, a person who does not keep vows. Even today, vows are associated with binding formal commitments: wedding vows, for instance, but also monastic vows of silence, celibacy, and poverty.

It must be an important and powerful word; it’s so short. It’s been sanded down from the Latin: the original verb is vovere, which gave us the noun votum – source also of our word vote, which is now a commitment of a different kind, though also constative.

Language changes, of course. But we don’t have to be willing participants in any change we dislike. We may lose the battle, but if there is a battle still to be fought, why not join it? Thus I pledge my resistance to use of vow as a short synonym for promise or state intention. I give you my word I will stand against it. But I won’t say I vow to do so; that’s still so solemn and binding it makes me nervous. Really, you may vow blood revenge, but you don’t vow added highway funding – nor, a fortiori, to get a drink or stay in the hot tub.

Here, try this: every time you see “vows” in a newspaper headline, replace it with “goes down on one knee with hand on heart and solemnly swears” or “raises fist to sky and proclaims to God and all humanity…” See how that feels.

One response to “vow

  1. Daniel E. Trujillo Medina.

    James: You have a way of reaching into my heart and mind in ways that remain for me a thing to marvel at. May I share something with you. I am a reserve officer of the Colombian army. When I served, I took two oaths: one oath to the flag and one when I was given my weapon. The words one speaks during those two ceremonies are very powerful and, for someone like me anyway, binding. The oaths speak of defending the country and its institutions, of never abandoning anyone on the battlefield or in any other circumstance and many other things. These words have become truly what I live by, even now that I am no longer in active duty. Reading your post tonight caused me to remember those oaths, and the things I promised to do. And it all brought a smile to my face. Thank you.

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