Just a few words about words
“But words are things, and a small drop of ink, falling like dew upon a thought, produces that which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think.” — George Noel Gordon, Lord Byron
Ask any good craftsman about the contents of his tool box and you will quite likely set him to talking, so today I feel inclined to talk about the contents of my tool box.
Words are the tools of any writer, but unlike a saw or a pipe wrench, words can tend to be a tad more nuanced in their applications.
Let’s take the word “love,” as example. The ancient Greeks, quite a few of whom were right handy with words, had either nine, if memory serves me, or 11, if it doesn’t, different ones of them for love in its various forms, while the English language, marvelous as it truly is, has only one, a fact that often leads to instances of confusion within our communications, particularly when used by one person in reference to another.
We don’t seem to have much trouble when somebody says he loves football or strawberries, or a brand of bourbon or his dog, or even another human being who is related to him. But sometimes, if that same mythical person of ours says he loves a particular friend not immediately present, eyebrows can start to rise beneath “inquiring minds,” and should he say directly to another the phrase, “I love you,” well, a whole Pandora’s Box worth of getting mixed up can ensue.
We might need another word or two to help out “love,” with some of those nuances. It’s kinda like having a 1/2-inch socket for a 5/8-inch bolt. I’m telling you, those old dead Greeks knew some stuff.
Similarly, folks tend to consider the words “hell” and “damn” to be cuss words (If one lives beneath the Mason-Dixon line, he does not “curse,” he “cusses.”), but I would argue that they really should not be, and that they are, in fact, perfectly good words —the first designating what a lot of folks believe to be a specific eternal destination, and the other designating what those same folks believe to be the manner by which one gets there.
Along that line, a respectable university study came out a few years ago which concluded that “cussing” can actually be a beneficial practice to us humans on certain occasions, but I think that anyone who has ever hit his thumb with a hammer, dropped a refrigerator on his toe or stepped barefoot in the dark on a Lego likely already knew that.
Computers, in the various shapes and sizes that play such a huge (but not always beneficial) role in our contemporary lives, are equipped with “apps,” an inadequate word describing inadequate attempts to improve modern society’s admittedly dreadful spelling — which do no such thing but which can make one appear foolish or ignorant or both.
“To,” “too,” and “two” are all unquestionably good words, but one is used for direction, another to indicate the additional and the last is a number — distinctions which neither humans nor their “aps” are very good at discerning. Same goes for “affect” and “effect,” which I sometimes believe are the most confused words in the entire language.
But they are hardly alone:
• “Continually” (over and over) and “continuously” (unceasing) get mixed up a lot, as do “gender” (grammatical distinctions) and “sex” (physical ones).
• People are frequently complaining they are “nauseous” and they may well be — if they make other people sick. But if they are referencing their own stomach disorders, they are “nauseated,” It does occur to me, however, that should one make this mistake too often, he could, in fact, be both.
• “Presently” is another item in my tool box that seems to be tripped over a lot. It should be used when we are trying to say soon and not when referring to the present. And while on this subject, I truly wish people would stop trying to sound fancy by saying “at the present time,” when the always trusty “now” is always not only available but adequate.
And in what has always to me been something of the Champale of the fine wine into which words can combine, it seems to me that more and more people are verbally speculating about what might “transpire” at or about something or another. I am convinced the origin of this was someone trying to sound smarter than he or she was by just using “a big word,” he or she thought no one in the audience would know, and as such be impressed. Both then and since, this has proved most unfortunate, because both our long ago linguistic wretch and all those who have followed have committed the same verbal sin — one committed so often that some dictionaries have just given up and (equally sinfully) begun to surrender to it in their definitional listings.
Because when anybody says he wants to know what “transpired” or what will “transpire” that person is actually expressing an interest in what has been or will be emitted, as vapor.
And not only are all those people not really deeply concerned about vaporous emissions, there exists a perfectly good word for what they really do want to know about—what “happened” or is going to “happen.”
Ah, ah, just don’t do it: Remember, a good craftsman never blames his tools.
Ray Mosby is editor and publisher of the Deer Creek Pilot in Rolling Fork.