How Devoted Should We Be to Maintaining Definitions?

Australians like to change words and then never replace the old one. Or they adapt a word from two separate places and still call the two different items the same thing. Potato chips could be crisps, but usually you call them chips, and fries are fries if you’re talking McDonalds, but other than that they’re also chips.

And as much as they like to shorten words, they have a lot of long, “politically correct” names for things like “traditional lemonade” instead of just calling it lemonade and just calling their Sprite something else. Or, we could go really wild and just give lemonade an actual word all its own, but Australians are apparently just better at context according to the man who doesn’t understand why I can call my cat the Little Black Bastard but he can’t.

My time in Australia had made me strongly in favor of France’s “No English!” edict.

As a writer and recovering Grammar Nazi, I often contemplate how anal we should be about word choice and maintaining its official definition. On the one hand, the more staunchly we retain a meaning, the easier it is to communicate. On the other, writers often talk about ideas, emotions, or things we simply do not have a word for. Meaning comes from the combination of sounds, how we choose to pair our words. They are not limited, and, in fact are incomplete, without each other. Plus, considering our desire to rejuvenate a reader’s perspective on something old, there is a lot of merit for someone using a word in an expected way.

And, no matter how hard we try to restrain words, they will always develop different meanings to each individual.

The first criticism I ever remember getting was on the word “glance.” What’s kind of funny about it was I didn’t really agree with her assessment, but I kind of assumed that I was just being egotistical. It wasn’t until years later that I thought back on it, actually looked up the definition, and considered why she had that response to realize that she was, in the main ways, wrong.

A character fled from a dragon, diving down to the shelter of a rock. He glanced upwards as the thing swoops over his head. He grabs his sword and stands. Or something.

She claimed that glancing was a causal action.

She was a fellow high school student, but someone I respected, senior to me and a big reader. I didn’t make the change and probably argued with her, but it stuck with me ever since. I remember saying, “I meant he looked quickly,” which I think she shrugged at.

This is the reason I hate line edits. If you look up the definition of “glance,” it is predominantly about speed, sometimes about light, sight, or bouncing. Nowhere does it discuss the attitude of the doer.

But does that mean it’s not casual?

To her, it was. And many of us have unofficial connotations and connections that, whether writers like it or not, can strongly confuse or jar a reader, even if they are the only ones in the world who feel that way.

It’s also a prime time in which people’s view of you affects what you are “allowed” to do. I talk about the time I used the word chagrin in which a friend was certain I made up the word chagrin even though he had read Twilight a hundred times which had been accused by naysayers of using that word far too much.

You might be utilizing something completely correctly and yet the reader assumes you don’t know what you’re talking about because somewhere along the line they had made a falseconnection with the word.

Or perhaps the connection is obvious, but pointlessly restricting. The most controversial line I’ve ever written was “She furrowed her mouth.” Now, of course “furrowed” doesn’t mean “her brow” because “she furrowed her brow” would be redundant and “she furrowed” would be a perfectly acceptable sentence. Yet the unofficial link between the two made some people very concerned that I would describe it that way. “Don’t you usually furrow your brow?”

Sometimes you have to say something that makes perfect sense but seems oxymoronic. Or maybe is officially oxymoronic. A fellow writer once complained about a book she was reading on how “You can’t whisper loudly.” Well, isn’t “loud” contextual? Can you see how she might be whispering louder now than at other times?

In that case, I felt she knew exactly what the author wanted and was just being pedantic.

Words change over time, and in many cases what is officially correct just sounds weird to native speakers. I joke about the time a white American messaged me and I believed English was his second language due to his overly formal, technically precise way of speaking. But, no, he was just a writer.

The issue of different meanings behind the same words is most apparent in clich├ęd writing advice. Things like “show, don’t tell,” “kill your darlings,” and even “writer’s block,” might not be the same idea to two separate people. One gentleman recently told me that show don’t tell means specifics, writing that “he did his chores and went to work” is telling while “he mowed the lawn and went to his accounting firm” is showing. Another man told me that it’s “writing in real time.” So “he mowed the lawn and went to his accounting firm” is still telling; you’d have to say, “The blisters on his hands threaten to burst as he rolled the lawn mower back into the garage. He shoved it in and slammed down the door, fumbling for the keys. John yanked open his car door, shouting, ‘Honey! I’m going to work!’” Someone else said it was about using the senses. I once read an unintentionally humorous blog about how you should “kill your darlings,” being about why you should literally kill off your characters, while my high school teacher explained it as being willing to cut things you love for the good of the story. And if you get into any discussion about writer’s block and whether it exists or not, you are very likely to find that the looming threat is something different to everyone.

You can’t stop words from developing their own personal meaning, no matter how clearly you draw the line. We learn by circumstance and rarely do we actually look up the real definition. Yet how much do we allow for evolution and how much do we force a constant meaning?

Take the word “irony” as our most popular example.

The original definition of irony meant sarcasm, yet no one uses it for that anymore. If you do, in fact, you’re going to sound bizarre, noticeable, and it’s possible no one will have any idea of what you’re trying to say.

“That’s ironic.”

You have situational irony, in which someone does something with unexpected results, or dramatic irony, in which the observer has knowledge that a speaker doesn’t, making his words more significant to the observer (usually used in literature and performance art).

But then you have the unofficial meaning which is often either an amusing coincidence, or, as I tend to use it, hypocrisy. Some use it as meaning an unfortunate event.

It’s a big pet peeve for many, and I ask the honest question on how much should we care?

Do we need its original meaning?

Well, I have found myself needing a synonym for sarcastic every now and again. Caustic is the closest word I can usually make work. Sometimes disdain or cynicism, but often those aren’t quite right. Facetious, can be useful, but it has its own connotation too.

Yet I don’t think we have another word to reference when an action results in something unforeseen. I also don’t feel like that comes up a lot. I try to avoid using “ironically” because of how much focus it gets whether it’s correct or not, but there have been a few times in which I’ve thought it was best, like when I talk about how much I hate using computers and people argue, “But you’re on yours all of the time!”

“It’s called a sad irony.”

Should we allow it to evolve to this new meaning? Coincidence, I don’t think, needs another synonym. Amusing accident, chance, contradiction… But, I’m not sure that quite covers it. As I said, when I’m compelled to use ‘irony’ without thinking about it, it tends to mean hypocritical. “Ironically enough, he is constantly offended at other people getting offended.” And many people use it in reference to a karmic act when “Susie married Jon for his money and he lost his medical degree two days after the wedding.” These may be correct at times, but usually that’s a coincidence and not the amusing kind.

There’s another word for that: “Schadenfreude.” Thought that is also technically not English, an also is about the feeling of seeing someone in pain over a stupid action.

I am too young to know when this obsession with “irony” started, but if I had to hazard a guess, I’d say it was Alanis Morissette’s song “Ironic,” in which, as many say, everything she sings about is an amusing coincidence not actual irony. Some suggest that the irony of the song is that none of it is actually ironic. Who knows. My bigger issue is what does it matter?

And I don’t mean that ironically.

When do we allow for words to grow and when do we demand that we use them in the way officials have agreed they were intended? For that matter, when are we using a word in a new and effective way versus when we’re just using it wrong? How do we know that words mean what we think they do without checking the definition for everything we say? When do we try and listen to someone’s point instead of contradicting them over a misspoken phrase? And when do we stand strong and demand the respect of a word so that it doesn’t just get muddled, meaningless, and replaced?

I don’t have the answer. I raised the question so you can think about it for me. Let me know what you find out.

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