Thursday, September 06, 2007

Words, Miscommunication, and Writing

There is something that both writers and readers too often take for granted–the idea that a word means the same thing to me that it does to you. When two people speak the same language and come from the same region and background, the meaning of a word is likely to be so close for those two people as to be practically indistinguishable. For every divergence from that congruence of experience the likelihood of a word holding different meanings is going to increase.

An example, for me a "bubbler" is the thing that you put in your fish tank to oxygenate it. For some other people from not very away from where I grew up a "bubbler" is a drinking fountain.

There are words that are so specific that it is hard to find a lot of shading. Flammable comes to mind. But there are also words that have one precise absolute meaning for one person and a completely different meaning for someone else. This seems particularly true of important words like "truth" or "belief" or under certain circumstances (family dinners come to mind), "yes" or "no."

I've recently been reminded of this by a debate about copyright that I'd been having over at Making Light. I say "had," because I'm giving up. A fundamental difference over the meaning of the words "property, service," and "permanence,"* seems to be a big part of the miscommunication and that's okay.

I realize that not everyone is going to understand what I'm saying and that even when they do, many won't like or will disagree with me. Being a writer that's just part of the job. Some people will understand my books, some won't. Of the ones that do, some will like them, some won't. The same is true for those that don't understand them. That's just how it works, and getting het up about it is pretty pointless.

What about you, oh wise reader? Have any words that have caused a misunderstanding betwixt you and someone else? Any words that you find particularly slippery? Truth is number one on that list for me, with belief a close second.

*C.E. Petit just came through and nailed down the issue with "property" in such a way that suggests that one may be the root cause of the misunderstanding, though I also think there are shading problems with the other two.


Anonymous said...

I'm from southeastern Kentucky. Our verbiage is a bit different from most other places. When we "fix dinner" or "fix you a plate", we're making dinner or filling a plate of food - not mending something that's broken. I've stumped I don't know how many people with my "pones of cornbread" (baked in an iron skillet and not in a square pan). We won't even talk about a "mess" of anything, mkay? :D And more, a lot more.

Thankfully, when I write I have my husband to read over my manuscripts for any particular Kentuckyisms and, gods forbid, the dreaded Harlan Countyisms. ;)

Although I did have a moment of someone asking "What does this mean?" once, but of course I can't remember what it was...>.<

getting het up about it is pretty pointless.

Yup. ;)

Tim Susman said...

Was just visiting relatives this past Labor Day, and my uncle (from the hills of West Virginia) was telling me that once he told my aunt (from Pittsburgh) that he was "out in the fields humpin' all day." He said he couldn't believe the look she gave him--he thought he'd just said he'd been working hard all day, and she, thinking of the word in a somewhat different sense, thought she must not have heard him right...

Janice said...

Yes. With the same person I have had arguements over:

1. Gregarious - I was thinking sociable, he was thinking - flocklike. I think we were both right.

2. Unconscious. I said if you were asleep you were unconscious. He seemed to think unconscious = fainted. I think I was right there.

3. Mediocre. I said "I'm mediocre" in reply to "How are you?" was more negative than saying "I'm ok", which has a more neutral tone to it. He said mediocre is equivalant to OK. Everyone we ask seems to agree that mediocre sounds more negative than OK.

Janice said...

Oh and just adding to say: I know you go unconscious when you faint, but you are also unconscious when you sleep. He seemed to think unconsciousness happens ONLY when you faint. Come on now..

Anonymous said...

He seemed to think unconsciousness happens ONLY when you faint

That made me laugh. Out loud.

Kelly Swails said...

Mari: I grew up dangerously close to southern IL, and when you say things like "mess" and "fix supper," I knew exactly what you're talkin' about. Like: "I'm gonna fix this mess of bluegill for supper and throw the bones down the zink."

I say "of an evening" or "of a morning" alot, and Ken will invariably say "What?" You know, as in: "I like to have a cup of tea of an evening" means "I like tea during the evening hours."

Anonymous said...

"I'm gonna fix this mess of bluegill for supper and throw the bones down the zink."


I say "of an evening" or "of a morning" alot, and Ken will invariably say "What?"

I've not heard that in years! :D Although the other day one of my friends told me she had a bone in her leg - and of course we both understood...:D

Kelly McCullough said...

"A bone in her leg?" Aroo?

BTW, love all the examples, folks.

Anonymous said...

Her leg was hurting...Same a when you've got a bad cough you tell people, "I've got a lung."

Clear as mud? :D

Anonymous said...

... Bone in her leg zoomed over my head too. Though now I get it. 8)

On other notes: I can't think of too many examples, but spiritual/religious is a nasty one.

Unconscious and subconscious are a weird couple too, as I've never been sure which one is actually the Jungian term. O.o

Not exactly what you mean, but hey. :>

Stephanie Zvan said...

Oh, Ryan, it gets even better than that. They're different things if you're a Jungian than if you're a Freudian. If you're a Skinnerian, they're essentially meaningless, and if you're a cognitive behavioralist, they might make your head explode.

My biggest problems with multiple meanings come from just this. I speak the jargon of several fields, but they don't cross-translate and the words are often very squishy in plain English.

Anonymous said...

Oh yowch. That's vicious.

Just you saying that is making me... not my head hurt, so much as wonder what I've gotten into with my psychology books, Stephanie. :D