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.
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?