17 December 2010

Christmastime is here...

I recognize i tend to go off on miniature rants, or at least take more of a negative spin on language as i find it addressed in life around me. In light of the season (as well as taking into account my thoughts my thoughts on a typographic video of Stephen Fry), i thought it would be nice to elucidate and illuminate the meanings of words we toss around willy-nilly at the end of the year, often without knowing what in angels we heard on high we are talking about.

Advent: It comes from the Middle English, from the Latin word adventus which means 'arrival;' it's used to mark the arrival of Jesus as a baby. Quite appropriately, it's also used in some circles to talk about his return. Seems Jesus is all about the advent.

Myrrh: Most of us don't even know how to spell this one, let alone what it is. (I had to use google's autocorrect to get the proper spelling.) It's an aromatic resin that comes from trees found in eastern Africa and Arabia (the around called the Horn of Africa). The Egyptians used it on their mummies, but most everyone else considered it a medicine, equal to its weight in gold.

Frankincense: Like myrrh, frankincense is a resin from a tree, also from the Horn of Africa. It is used as an incense, hence its name, and because the smell is said to represent life, it's often used to anoint newborns or individuals entering a new spiritual phase of life.

Yule: Comes from the Old Norse 'jōl', a pagan midwinter festival. Still called 'Jul' by Scandinavians today.

Christmas: The origin of the word is in Old English, that language that predates the English as we know it. Christmas, or Cristes mæsse, literally means 'Christ's Mass.' There is probably not a singular source for the cause of celebration on December 25. There were a plethora of winter feasts during the winter months: Roman Saturnalia, Scandinavian Yule, Germanic feasts and celebrations. Most pointed was a later Roman festival which took place on the specific date we now take to be Christmas Day. It was a celebration called Dies Natalis Solis Invicti and it centered around 'the birthday of the unconquered sun,' or as we call it, the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. The way the Romans they saw things, Sol invictus, the 'unconquered sun,' would be born anew and take back the heavens, slowly reclaiming winter's kingdom. Some early scholars link the festivals with the birth of Jesus, calling him the 'unconquered' one.

Nativity: It means, at its simplest, 'the process of being born.' So this isn't really a holiday word, except when we add 'the' to the beginning of it. My own nativity was in September, and my roommate's was in June. There might not be Christmas in July, but nativity in July, very possible.

Noel: This is the French word for Christmas. It comes from the Latin natalis, meaning 'birth.' When it's not capitalized, it also refers to a Christmas carol. Not sure how that fits in with 'birth.'

Grinch: Invented by Dr. Seuss specifically for his beloved Christmas story, 'How the Grinch Stole Christmas,' it refers to someone who's a killjoy. BONUS: Seuss also invented the word 'nerd' for his story 'If I Ran the Zoo.'

Merry Yule, and happy New Year to all.

In case this wasn't enough on language, a recent poll described 'whatever' as the most irritating word. Discuss.

03 December 2010

I Refudiate the Use of This Word

A couple weeks back, the New Oxford American Dictionary released their words for 2010. Various dictionaries, worldwide, release words every year that came to prominence. The fact a word makes it on the list means nothing in regard to usefulness, longevity, newness or even correctness. The criterion that most matters, in the words of NOAD's Ammon Shea, is whether a word 'has attracted a great deal of new interest' that calendar year.

The word NOAD picked as this year's top word was 'refudiate.'

Thank you, Sarah Palin.

It started when she used it on a cable news show, asking Michelle Obama to 'refudiate' that the Tea Party movement is racist. That same weekend, she tweeted the following:
'Ground Zero Mosque supporters: doesn't it stab you in the heart, as it does ours throughout the heartland? Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate.'
I've already touched on the use of the moniker 'Ground Zero mosque' in another post, so i don't feel the need to say anything more on that subject.

She didn't initially mean to use the word. Her original tweet was taken down and replaced with
'Peaceful New Yorkers, pls refute the Ground Zero mosque plan if you believe catastrophic pain caused @ Twin Towers site is too raw, too real.'

*emphasis mine
. She originally acknowledged that her use was wrong. Then, as politicians tend to do, she stood her ground that English is alive and ever-changing.
' "Refudiate," "misunderestimate," "wee-wee'd up." English is a living language. Shakespeare liked to coin new words too. Got to celebrate it!'

I agree. English is alive, fluid and changing, and nothing can stop that. It's a natural evolution to any language that is only prevented once the language dies, as it has with Latin.

She also grouped herself with Shakespeare, the originator of over 1,000 new words to the English language. Not to belittle Sarah Palin any, but the words he coined--the likes of 'eyeball', 'apostrophe,' and 'obscene'--he truly invented, purposefully. Palin did not.

Refudiate is by no means a new word. The New Oxford American Dictionary blog lists the first recorded use in a Texas newspaper in the late 1800s. It is also mentioned in a headline in the 1920s, and, more recently, by a senator in 2006. What brings Palin's use to prominence in both her personality, as well as her continued insistence upon using the word.

I take issue with her use of both the 'living language' argument as well as the 'Shakespeare: word maker' argument. If she had intended to use 'refudiate' from the beginning, that pairing would make sense. However, she did not.

Given that her impact on American society has been so prevalent, regardless that she's only been in the spotlight for 3 years, it amazes me she can have such an impact, even accidentally, as to make a misspoken word a national news story.

22 October 2010

Correct me if i'm wrong...

The video above us here is of Stephen Fry reading a piece he wrote, which was then typographically animated by Matt Rogers. (You may remember Fry from my post Nouns and Verbs back in July.)

There are two things that immediately come to mind when i'm watching this. The first is wondering if Stephen Fry was the voice of the Guide in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. (He was.) The second is how much i both agree and disagree with his thoughts on language.

He talks of those he calls pedants acting more like dictatorial school masters than lovers of language. I agree that those of us who know the rules need not run around like we have the blessing of Lynn Truss (who's books i thoroughly enjoy), Sharpie in hand correcting the obvious-to-us mistakes of billboards, advertisements, highway signs and store-front windows. (I'm not talking about this guy specifically, but he did come to mind.) More can be done to promote proper use of language through illustration than correction.

Even where i disagree, it's only because i don't agree fully with his assertion that these pedants who fight for the clarity of language don't give a hoot about clarity at all. It's true that the sign reading '10 items or less' is just as clear as the grammatically correct '10 items or fewer.' Yet we are surrounded by many who's daily lives are inundated with the use and manipulation of language, yet even they are often failing to illustrate accurate meaning through their words.

I'm talking of course about those who work in the fast-declined newspaper business. I would dare to say, as a group they are more often responsible for the lack of clarity in language than those in any other profession, and their jobs are directly tied to the handling of language! I realize there are many constraints, from editors to time to space. Yet so very often, we still read headlines like 'Briton killed by drone tied to Times Square bomber.' What they meant to say was 'linked,' not 'tied.' Sometimes it's not clarity they lack, but specificity. 'The nuclear submarine USS Seawolf surfaced after spending 60 days submerged in water' is clear enough, but with a specific body of water listed, the sentence becomes far less silly.

On one hand, Fry states that using language well is more beneficial than correcting those who don't, yet those who use language most aren't always using it well themselves. I think where Fry finds himself frustrated is the way in which correction often happens. Most often we are corrected with the air of self-righteous indignation that language herself has been abused, when, in fact, it's mostly mistakenly misused. Very rarely is language actually abused and where it is, we should stand up with indignation (leaving the self-righteousness at home locked in the basement where it belongs). But when mistakes occur, as they so often do, correction should be done with care and gentleness, then we won't need to hide behind any sort of mask of clarity.

Edit: Finally got the video above to fit into the page parameters.

18 August 2010


There has been a lot of discussion recently concerning a certain building in a certain location. Some call it the 'mosque at Ground Zero,' others use the more simple moniker 'Ground Zero mosque,' and still others say it is the 'Cordoba House on Park Place.'

The building in question is slated to be a cultural center, complete with a prayer room for Muslims in need of a place to pray one of the 5 times a day they are required. Being located in the heart of New York City is not why this building is being discussed ad nauseum on cable news and the internet. It's the exact location that caused the debate. The Cordoba House is being constructed two blocks from the former site of the World Trade Center, now known as Ground Zero, which is itself under construction to build a monument to the victims of the September 11 attacks.

Much of the debate centers around the location of this building. Many of the framers of the debate label the Cordoba House as a mosque being build at Ground Zero. Without placing myself on the political spectrum, i want to illustrate the problems with this label.

Firstly, there is simple matter of the preposition. Prepositions are small, but powerful, words we use to describe an object's placement in a three dimensional world. (Even in four dimensions: with the use of words like 'after' and 'before' we place the object in time.) It might only be a two letter word such as 'in' or 'by' or 'at,' yet it helps us to orient our world.

A baseball coach asking his player to 'throw the ball to first base' would be rightfully upset if the player's definition of the word 'to' was more akin to 'near'. Traveling to Grandma's house, we must go 'over the river' and 'through the woods,' because any other way leads us not to Grandma's house, but to getting lost, or in the case of 'into the river,' drowned.

Saying the Cordoba House is 'at' Ground Zero places it within spitting distance of the soon to be constructed Freedom Tower. In reality, it's two blocks away. The correct preposition is 'near' or 'by' or even the hybrid, 'nearby.' It may seem like semantics, but when location is the reason behind the debate, it's interesting to note how often people against the center are using the wrong preposition.

Not only is the preposition wrong, but they tend to call it a mosque. This is where English shortchanges the Arabic. Muslims have two words for mosque, one for the place where daily prayers are held and another for the location where not only daily prayers are held, but also Friday sermons are preached. The Cordoba center will only be the former, not the latter.

This is a notable distinction. Devout Muslims pray five times every day, preferably in groups. To do so, they need a reliable place to gather to pray, privately. To call such a place a mosque is accurate, but misleading. The term 'cultural center' better describes the mission of the Cordoba Center. The word 'mosque' paints a picture which include minarets, Friday services, teachings on the Qur'an, and calls to prayer. None of those things will be present.

Whether or not it's cold-hearted to set up the building in the coming shadow of the Freedom Tower, the framers of the debate have twisted the facts into minor inaccuracies which in turn color the discussion an entirely different color. An inaccurate use of language can be just as powerful rhetoric as any.

23 July 2010

Nouns and Verbs

This week i found out about a five-part series on language, titled Planet Word. That it will air on BBC2--meaning without cable or satellite i'm unable to watch it--doesn't considerably quell my excitement.

The creator of the series, Stephen Fry, is nationally renowned (in Britain) as the quizmaster of QI and was voted the most intelligent man in 2006 by the readers of RT.

In a recent interview, he said something intriguing, yet profound. 'We are not nouns, we are verbs,' said Fry. 'I am not a thing – an actor, a writer – I am a person who does things – I write, I act – and I never know what I am going to do next. I think you can be imprisoned if you think of yourself as a noun.'

How often do we think of ourselves as nouns? We use nouns to describe ourselves relationally as brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, co-workers, friends, classmates, roommates and neighbors. We use nouns to talk about our vocations: fire fighter, chef, salesman, street vender, exterminator, construction worker. Even some of our accomplishments are listed as nouns. We talk about being high school or college graduates, environmental advocates, philanthropists, investors, artists and gardeners.

When we use nouns to describe ourselves, we are using inactive words to describe active people.

We may be brothers, daughters, neighbors and classmates, but if we don't act as a brother, daughter, neighbor or classmate, we aren't truly fulfilling the meaning of the word.

Additionally, our jobs should not define us as inactive nouns. A job is active and moving, even if it takes place at a desk in a cubicle.

Especially when we talk about our accomplishments, what we say should be full of the life and activity only verbs can give language. There is subtle difference between a 'graduate' and one who 'graduated,' but that subtlety is crucial. Like the man who exercises every day, the difference fails to manifest immediately. Gradually, a new picture is painted of a man who is healthier, more fit, and more energized.

Our lives are not defined by what we are, but what we do. Our language and the words we use to describe ourselves should reflect as much.

13 July 2010


It's been said many times before that the world continues to become busier and move faster. It's our own doing, really. We push to expand our profits, our margins, our customer base; we drive fast cars to fast food in fast forward lives. Our company names reflect that.

Recently, the world-renowned YMCA (and it's sister, the YWCA) changed their corporate name. What was once four letters drops to one, the Y. It seems the impetus behind the name change came from the people who belonged to the organization.

The New York Times quotes Kate Coleman, senior vice president and chief marketing officer, as saying it was how they decided to become 'warmer, more genuine, more welcoming' by calling themselves what everyone else calls them.

(It wasn't a complete change over. The individual clubs will retain the full acronym.)

What does it mean when an organization changes their official name to their nickname? There must be some need for companies and organizations to sound more friendly through nicknames, it's becoming a wicked habit.

Proctor & Gamble keeps their full name, but in all the marketing, they dropped down to P&G.

British Petroleum, after acquiring a few other oil companies, dropped everything but the letters, BP.

Kentucky Fried Chicken is legally KFC, but uses both in promotions. Might have something to do with the rumor they changed their name due to a lack in chicken in their food.

General Electric, like Proct....P&G, keeps their full name for official business, but gets buddy buddy with the consumer through the initials GE.

AT&T, NPR, and countless others use their initials for marketing purposes, or officially changed their names to only letters. Some, like IBM, used their initials from the beginning, leaving consumers in the dark to their meaning all along. (For the record, IBM stands for Industrial Business Machines.)

I'm frustrated by a nation that feels the need to officially shrink the names of businesses in order to reach out to customers. It's one thing to accept and embrace a nickname; it's entirely different to take that moniker as your official title.

Shortening the names that once stood for something is taking out the meat between the bones. All that's left is a skeletal structure of a name. I might as well change my name to mb and be done with it.

28 June 2010

Hello, Lady!

In one of my first posts, back in April of last year, i mentioned the word 'dreary' and how it's lost power and meaning throughout the centuries of use. That's now the only direction language flows. It also fills words with more depth, more meaning, more fullness as time wanes onward.

I came across the origin of the word 'lady.' It comes from the Old English (similar to the word 'dreary'). Originally it was spelled 'hlāēfdīge.' Don't ask me to pronounce it; i don't speak Old English. Through the Middle Ages, it transformed into 'lafdi' then 'ladi' to arrive at something close to our current 'lady'. However, the meaning was thoroughly different from what we hold today; 'hlāēfdīge' means 'loaf-kneader.'

The original lady was a job description, similar to butcher, baker, or candle-stick maker. (Maybe that last one went a bit too far.) Our current use, by contrast, is much more broad, and much more rich. We use the term 'lady' today to refer to a woman in a polite manner. We also use it as a title, referring to an individual's social status. We group it in phrases such as 'ladies and gentlemen'--an opening phrase of respect for both genders--and 'lady and the tramp'--a juxtaposition between two individuals of distinctly separate social standing. What once was considered a title of menial labor has become a dignified label of courtesy.

It has also kept a bit of a brusque nature. When used in lieu of a name--'Lady, please pass the salt'--it holds a more direct and impolite weight behind it. Yet even this is a filling out of hlāēfdīge. The word 'lady' projects more than the task of a simple loaf-kneader. It displays a certain vanity, a distinct femininity behind even the most abrupt usage, a femininity that extends beyond kitchen or housework.

Where 'dreary' acts as a cautionary tale of the life that can be drained from a word when used poorly, or overused, 'lady' is a standard to which we can aspire. Language is a sword. When used properly, it is the foil or sabre of fencing; designed for style and specific attack targets. Wielded carelessly, it becomes a machete, a utility that does the job, but tears down much in the process.

11 June 2010

Tweet! Tweet!

Phil Corbett, the standards editor at the New York Times, has issued a decree: no longer will the word 'tweet' be used in news articles.

For the uninformed, a 'tweet' is a 140-character message published on Twitter, a social-networking site. For those who didn't quite understand all of that, Twitter is a company based in San Francisco that simply asks you the question 'What's happening?' and your answer to that (in 140 characters or less) allows you to connect with friends in small pieces. You can send status-updates on your whereabouts, thoughts, musings, interactions, overheard conversations, whatever you can fit. You can update through mobile phone, computer, instant messaging, email, and a host of other methods. (Which became useful last year when the Iranian government attempted to silence the political protesters; they still managed to keep the world at large updated through Twitter.)

So a tweet is a short message sent across the ether to the internet at large and your friend/followers specifically. Now that everything is squared away, here's what Corbett says about the word:

Some social-media fans may disagree, but outside of ornithological contexts, “tweet” has not yet achieved the status of standard English. And standard English is what we should use in news articles.

Except for special effect, we try to avoid colloquialisms, neologisms and jargon. And “tweet” — as a noun or a verb, referring to messages on Twitter — is all three. Yet it has appeared 18 times in articles in the past month, in a range of sections.

His alternatives are that people 'use Twitter, post to or on Twitter, write on Twitter, a Twitter message, a Twitter update.' He also suggests that once Twitter is mentioned as the medium of communication, reporters 'should simply use "say" or "write" ' for what is published on the site.

I don't disagree with his assessment. The New York Times is a respected news organization. The use of jargon like 'tweet' is a chink in the armor of their credibility and readability.

Where i disagree is in Corbett's use of the attribution. In journalism, the attribution is the most often seen in the words 'John Doe said'. 'Said' is the go-to attribution in news. Simplicity is strength. No need to put 'I love raising beef,' MacDonald beamed. Not only does it distract from the quote itself, but how does beaming say anything? The only action that took place that resulted in the words 'I love raising beef' was MacDonald saying something. Not gufawing, not laughing, not joking, saying.

There are other words to describe this action (speak, utter, claim...), but all others indicate more beyond the simple transmission of words. To say something is enough. It's the neutral action that helps to keep the reporter neutral.

However, Corbett offers 'say' and 'write' as attributions for tweets. Again, this is where i disagree. I'm certain he put 'say' in there as the old standby. However, nobody says anything on Twitter, and i'm not being philosophical. Twits (people who use twitter) write, text, email, post or publish, they don't say. As much as 'Kutcher said' looks newsie, it would more accurately reflect reality, and be correct use of language to put 'Kutcher wrote.'

08 April 2010

Big Pimpin'

If language has power (and if 'the pen is mightier than the sword,' how can we argue it doesn't), then we must first recognize what power does to understand what language can do.

There are two things in this world each of us is able to do, two ways of using power. Either we build, create, form and design or we destroy, eviscerate, ruin and obliterate. Create or destroy: those are our options, our only options.

Therefore, since language has power, it may either build or tear down.

We build when we preach 'Love is the final fight' or sing out 'One life but we're not the same/We get to carry each other.' We build when we tell our kids 'Good job,' 'I love you,' or 'Thank you for doing your best.' We build in those moments we talk about injustice as if it were a foreign invader to our way of life. We can build in the quiet moments and when we are louder than the mountains.

Even more easily, we can tear apart and destroy. What takes years to build in words of trust can be destroyed with one tactical lie. Biting sarcasm creates wedges which destroy relationships. The silver-tongued serpent inflicts more pain than brutal honesty from a true friend.

It is with this in mind that i read about Demi Moore and Kim Kardashian's clash over Twitter last week. This conversation via Twitter is what followed.

kk: Big pimpin w @SerenaJWilliams @LaLaVazquez @Kelly_Rowland Love u girls!

dm: Are you using the word 'pimpin' as in pimping?

kk: Doesn't everyone? LOL

dm: No disrespect I love a girls night out but a pimp and pimping is nothing more than a slave owner!

_lyricsexpress: [Kim] may have meant it in the "NEW AGE LINGO" - as in "pimpin" = Cool?

dm: Yeah but a pimp is nothing more than a slave owner!
if we want to end slavery we need to stop glorifying the "pimp" culture

jaeearly: tru but she doesnt mean it quite so literally

dm: It's not her! i/we have allowed it to be considered cool, but it still is what it is!
Just so ya'll are clear I like @KimKardashian I was just making a point about how we have used a word and desensitized the real meaning.
Clearly I stirred up a s**t storm, but to create change you have to be willing to take a risk and be willing to provoke thought & conversation

kk: Nothing wrong with dancing to Big Pimpin' by Jay Z in the club! Having a girls night out, gotta love that song!
Good point! I agree! It was just a song not literal

dm: Thanks for understanding!

Unintentionally, Kardashian used the word 'pimping' in a way that acted in a more destructive manner than necessary. On one level, she used the word as casually as any other and only to colorfully illustrate her night. Unfortunately, it seems more often than not we use language like a young toddler; our only goal is to navigate around our world, but we seem to be stumbling and knocking over mugs of coffee and falling down stairs more often than we gracefully traverse from kitchen to living room.

Using words casually, without knowing the weight of the meaning behind them is akin to tossing a sledgehammer onto the counter; it will break your grandmother's mug, or knock over the blender, spilling smoothie onto your best cookbook.

Carefully consider what words you use. 'Pimpin' glorifies the pimp culture of slavery and prostitution. 'Gyp' is a derivative of gypsy, equating that ethnic group with thievery and cheating. 'Hooligan' first referred to Irish immigrants in Britain who made a ruckus at the various pubs around London.

So watch your words; they have the power to either destroy or create. I know which i want them to do.

22 March 2010

America the Beautiful

Sorry for the long delay in postings. In the interim, i have moved, nearly been hired at a new job, disappointed at not getting new job, gained more hours at work, and acted as temporary transportation for a girlfriend without a car. No excuses, but it is my life.

So, without further ado, fuss or any other interference, here are more thoughts on language and how we use it:

It goes without saying that citizens are proud of their countries. It should go without saying, but it doesn't seem to.

Yes, there are most certainly times when a government of whatever country acts in a way certain individuals disagree with, even strongly (universal healthcare, for instance). Yet the very heat of their indignation illustrates just exactly how much they care for and hold high their country, even as they are upset at how it is being run.

There is nothing inherently wrong with being proud of your home. It's natural, even healthy. It's common sense to understand that if you don't like where you live, you should move.

Unfortunately, some people take this natural attitude of appreciation and enjoyment to an extreme.

Let me back up a bit.

Words hold tremendous power. How you talk about something, or even use a word, informs people's understanding of that thing. Therefore, if the leaders of a country use language that refers to their country as 'blessed by God' or 'the place the world looks to for guidance' or other such lofty phrases, it places great weight upon the people.

C.S. Lewis wrote briefly about love of one's country in his book The Four Loves. In the book, he talks about how love becomes a demon when we make of it a god. Continuing the thought along the thread of patriotism, he writes, 'Demoniac patriotism in their subjects . . . will make it easier for [rulers] to act wickedly; healthy patriotism may make it harder.' Therefore, Lewis continues, 'they may by propaganda encourage a demoniac condition of our sentiments in order to secure our acquiescence in their wickedness.'

We see this strikingly in the era between the two world wars in Germany. Through propaganda and due to the countries depressed state, Hitler was able to convince and even encourage the citizenry to fall in line with his wicked plans, including the planned extermination of the Jews and other ethnic and people groups.

Yet even the not-so extreme propaganda is harmful.

Take a deeper look at the United States. How often do we, as citizens of that country, refer to it as the United States? Often, we shorthand it to America, even as we are told by the map and by history that America consists of the entire 'new world,' from Alaska and northern Canada down to the tip of Chile, just north of Antarctica; one pole to the other. The way in which we refer to ourselves betrays that, even subconsciously, we consider ourselves to be the standard to which the rest of the hemisphere should and must fall in line behind.

There is nothing wrong, as i said before, of thinking your home, your country, your nation is the best. There is a reason you have chosen to continue to live there, despite its faults. However, setting up your country as the favorite and degrading all others are close neighbors; one can easily hop the fence over to the other yard without much thought.

The more we idealize and idolize our country, the more prone we become to degrading all others. Yes, the United States is a beautiful country, but where is our Black Forest, our Amazon River? Yes, the United States is vast and grandiose, but can we hold a candle to Himalayas or the the congo? Our mountains are not the largest, our rivers the largest, our monuments the grandest.

Yet even how we speak of our fair country, the words we use to describe her, illustrates our nationalist point of view. Therefore, be mindful of the words you use, the phrases. Even so much as to call us 'America,' while acceptable, shoves a message of elitism into the face of the world.

26 January 2010

What's in a Word?

Just finished reading an article. I'm generally not a fan of the word 'just' unless you're talking about if something is right or not. Most of the time people use it as a filler word, stealing away it's true meaning of 'no more than' or 'very recently.' In this case, however, it's true. I just finished reading an article written by Jon Foreman.

In in, he talks about some of the things i've talked about in this blog (see: Connotation of Words & Race). Except, he takes them both into new areas. It was a good read, an enlightening read. Here is an excerpt as well as the link to the rest of the article.

In many ways, words are metaphors pointing to the objects they represent. The word "tree" is not a tree; it is simply a placeholder for the real thing. Our understanding of the world is built upon a deeper set of presuppositions. Meaning demands meaning. Reason demands reason: 1+1=2, only when we agree upon the meaning of these symbols. The same is true for words. Words are our framework of meaning. Every one is a metaphor reaching to something beyond it's simple spelling and articulation.

(From What's in a Word)

12 January 2010

Connotation of Words

Every single word has at least two meanings. There are the obvious meanings listed in the dictionary we all become familiar with. These are the definitions of the words. For example, we define the word 'home' as 'a place of residence' but it is also 'to move or be aimed toward,' like a homing pigeon. One word, two definitions.

However, there are more to words than definitions. In his book 'Everything is Illuminated,' Jonathan Safran Foer weaves an intriguing, and sad, tale from two disparate parts. One of them is that of a Ukrainian named Alex, writing a story about his adventure with the author. In his broken English he writes such titles as 'An Overture to the Commencement of a Very Rigid Journey.' His sentences unfold likewise: '[He] is always promenading into things. It was only four days previous that he made his eye blue from a mismanagement with a brick wall.'

What he says is accurate to the definition of the words; one of the definitions of 'rigid' is 'hard,' and 'to promenade' is 'to walk.' What he says is accurate, but how he says it indicates he's not a native speaker. His use of words falls strictly into the structural definitions they carry; his grasp of the language falls below the mark that gives one the ability to speak naturally and effectively.

Another example seems in order. I'm getting pretty heavy on the linguistic jargon.

When you are in a relationship with someone, and i'm talking about more than friendship, you can rightfully say you belong to them, you are theirs, they are yours. It's entirely appropriate to use possessive pronouns when talking about them: my girlfriend, my husband, my lover. However, were you to use 'possess' or 'own' instead of 'belong,' the meaning changes drastically, despite their shared definitions.

When i am owned by you, i become a slave. It's a useful word for property, but people are not property.

When i am possessed by you, my body is not in my control. Demons possess you, people do not.

Each word--possess, own, belong--shares at least one definition with the other two; this does not make them at all interchangeable. If A equals B, and B equals C, that does not mean A always equals C, at least not with language.

Every single word has at least two meanings: one is the definition listed in the dictionary and the other is what meaning we place behind it. This connotation of words drives our language. Without it, we lose nuance and subtlety. With it, we hold multiple meanings with a single word.