Meanings within meanings

Words have meanings.

Yes, I know – it takes an English graduate to tell you that!

I don’t just mean they have definitions, though; they have layers and layers of meaning rippling beneath those definitions.

Take ‘July’ for instance. Think for a second about what ‘July’ means to you. Close your eyes and conjure up the sights, sounds, smells and feelings associated with July.

What did it mean?

For me, July sounds like the plock…plock…plock of tennis balls on racquets at Wimbledon. It smells like the tang of freshly cut grass wafting through enticingly open windows when you’re trying to concentrate on your end-of-year exams. It tastes of barbecues and ice creams and knowing the summer holidays are about to start. It feels  like warmth and the promise of freedom (OK, so this year in the UK it feels like the remote memory of warmth!).

If you’re in the US, of course, it means the approaching end of summer – schools there break up in May and go back in August. And there’s more of a guarantee of it being not just warm but hot. Stinking hot in some places. July in GA meant iced tea, the burn of car seats on the back of your be-shorted legs and the chill of the air-conditioning once it kicked in. It meant scurrying from one artificially (and usually excessively) cooled bubble to the next. It sounded like the whump of the AC turning on, the judder of it taking a break, and the eternal whirr of overhead fans. It smelled like sunblock and citronella. The nights sounded like the chirp of crickets and the croak of frogs and still, beneath it all, those fans turning and turning.

In the southern hemisphere, of course, July means winter. Maybe a short break from school, but still pretty much the swing of routine. It feels like woollen sweaters and waterproof jackets. It feels like your feet being crammed back into proper shoes after months of sandals and flip flops. It looks like long nights and short days. I don’t know anywhere in it well enough to know what it smells like or sounds like. Perhaps some of my southern-hemisphere friends can tell me.

The point is, one small word can mean a hundred different things that will never appear in any dictionary.

Last week, a well-known blogger forgot this. I won’t tell you who or the details of the story – if you know about it, you’ll know who I mean; if you don’t there is no benefit to anyone in me telling you. The specifics don’t matter.

This blogger wrote something that he firmly believes to be true and to be important. Unfortunately, the words he used and the way he expressed himself were not heard and understood in the way he intended. Lots of people were shocked and outraged.

To a certain extent, this is par for the course – if you’re challenging a firmly-held cultural belief, you’re going to upset some of the people who hold that belief, and you’re going to have to stand your ground against some slings and arrows.

Lots more people, however, were deeply hurt. His words reopened wounds which others had inflicted but which stung nonetheless.

He didn’t intend to cause hurt. His view is not inherently a hurtful one, but his words, and the layers of meaning they hold slashed and burned and ultimately obscured rather than elucidated his message.

Sadly, this writer, and another writer involved, then chose not to humbly apologise, but to attack their accusers like wounded wolves. They took up more word-weapons and brandished them with sarcasm and vitriol. Unsurprisingly, they made matters worse and worse.

I don’t know where things stand now. I chose to walk away rather than continue to give them or their opponents website traffic. There was no value in me witnessing any more of the battle. I had seen enough to recognise and, I hope, learn the lesson.

Words have meanings. What you mean by a word may not be what your reader or your hearer understands by it. As a blogger, a writer, a tweeter, a Facebooker, an emailer, a speaker…as a participant in this world in any way at all, remember, your words may not always mean what you think they mean, and they can have jagged edges. If you accidentally cut someone with them, don’t keep swinging, have the humility to stop, to listen, and to swap your knife for a bandage.

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This forms part of the One Word at a Time (#owaat) Blog Carnival hosted at peterpollock.com – today the word is July. Why not see what ‘July’ means to other writers – and maybe join in yourself?

10 Comments On This Topic
  1. Peter P
    on Jul 24th at 6:09 am

    This is what I love about the carnival… people can take one word and use it to inspire themselves to write such a wide variety of things.

    Great post, sis!

    Reply
    • Jennie Pollock
      on Jul 24th at 9:36 am

      Thanks Pete. It was even more marked seeing how we both started thinking about July meaning the end of school and beginning of summer then bounced off from there. I didn’t get quite as far as Christmas, though!

      Reply
  2. Judith Barnett
    on Jul 24th at 9:22 am

    Dear Jennie…please would you write a book? It would be longer than your blog posts and I would read it and enjoy it lots:-) J x

    Reply
    • Jennie Pollock
      on Jul 24th at 9:37 am

      Dear Judith, please would you be my agent, or president of my fan club or something? Thank you!
      I’m working on my book, but it’s a novel, not the type of book your boss writes. I hope that will be acceptable!

      Reply
      • Judith Barnett
        on Jul 24th at 11:17 am

        A novel would be amazing! I was sooo hoping you’d say that 🙂 J x (PS adveritsed post accepted!)

        Reply
  3. lisarrrr
    on Jul 24th at 1:48 pm

    You have quite the way with words, Jennie. And I have to echo Judith. I would read one of your books too. You especially described July in the American Southeast well. It’s been hot and muggy here in Alabama.

    Reply
    • Jennie Pollock
      on Jul 27th at 5:36 am

      Thanks alisa, I’m sure I’ll be sharing more about the book as it goes along. 🙂

      Glad my description of the South was recognisable to a ‘native’ – that’s really encouraging to know, thank you.

      Reply
  4. Joanne Norton
    on Jul 27th at 2:10 am

    This is true. One thing that has happened since there’s so much “wording” that is flung around and about is that we get in trouble sometimes for what we wrote, but when we were typing our mind had a tone of voice or emphasis, and, if spoken, it would be that way. But, just how others might read it, with their mind in operation, it can make a frustrating “battle” when not intended to be so. We really need to be careful in this day and age… and for older folks like me, it’s tougher and tougher.

    Oh… and my favorite time to be in Uganda was July, b/c I heard it was the coolest, most comfortable time. Was so disappointed that we always got there in late August/early September, and the weather had begun to change to warmer and rainstorm stretches. But, at the equator, it couldn’t be nearly as difficult as it is here in our central part of the States. Right now, extremely hot and very dry. July may be my birthday, but it isn’t my favorite month.

    You had some good sharing and thinking. That can keep all of us “hmmming” at the time needed.

    Reply
    • Jennie Pollock
      on Jul 27th at 5:34 am

      Thanks Joanne. Yes, you’re right, it’s incredibly hard to convey tone of voice in writing – especially if you’re being lighthearted or ironic. Exclamation marks and emoticons can help, but aren’t really appropriate for anything more formal than a text, tweet or personal email, are they?

      Thanks for your thoughts – and happy birthday month! 🙂

      Reply

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