Definition versus Reality: A Thorough Word Examination


This may sound a little crazy, but, for me, word choices in writing and in everyday life are decisions of paramount importance. Words have a far deeper meaning beyond their basic definition or even their etymology.

Of course, the definition is an important aspect of a word. But, when I choose words to express a point, I take into account a number of other factors beyond just your basic definition. I often consider how the word sounds when spoken aloud, the letters that make up the DNA of the word, the sound and implication of the words surrounding (I love alliteration, assonance, dissonance and cacophony), how the word looks on the page and what all those elements imply further about the word and the precise statement I am trying to make.

Language has a flow and a beauty of which few choose to be aware. As a writer, I don’t need music to enhance what I am trying to express. I can say it all using a single medium. How do I know when I have things right? I just know. When a phrase comes together in just the right way, it sounds like music in my mind and the world feels like perfection. Cliché, but so very true.

Because I love this feeling, and because I despise being misconstrued, this activity has filtered from my writing voice into my everyday voice. While there are few readers out there who can appreciate the language of a piece of writing, there are even fewer who notice it in everyday life. But language has a mysterious cadence, even in regular conversation if you choose to be aware of it.

If you look at many other languages, they each possess terms deemed “feminine” or “masculine” based on the letters falling at the end of the word. Although the English language does not have official feminine and masculine designations like other languages, English words can still have this implication based on their letter composition, the sound of the pronunciation, and the basic shape of the letters and the word as a whole. All of these are in addition to the strength of the meaning and the sound of a word which affect not only the subject being described, but also the general statement and thus the writer or speaker as a whole.

Let me give you a recent example.

I was talking to a relative the other day and we were discussing a specific individual that I know. This individual was described by my relative as “shy.” I described this person as “reserved.”

On a first glance, you may be thinking that the differences between the words shy and reserved are infinitesimal and that my relative and I simply chose different words to describe the same personality traits. But upon a deeper examination, one can see that there is a further implication behind these words and that the selection of the correct descriptor is extremely important when trying to describe an individual or thing.

First, the definitions:
(NOTE: definitions come from dictionary.com)

re·served

[ri-zurvd] adjective

1. kept or set apart for some particular use or purpose.
2. kept by special arrangement for some person: a reserved seat.
3. formal or self-restrained in manner and relationship; avoiding familiarity or intimacy with others: a quiet, reserved man.

shy

1 [shahy] adjective

1. bashful; retiring.
2. easily frightened away; timid.
3. suspicious; distrustful: I am a bit shy of that sort of person.
4. reluctant; wary.

I would not define the person we were discussing as timid. Instead, I would describe this person as formal and perhaps a little rigid. I selected the word reserved because of this individual’s tendency to hold his or her cards very close to the point of remaining rather unreadable. I also chose the word reserved based on my own feelings about this person’s tendency to do this. I am not often comfortable around people who hold their cards close to heart because I find them rather difficult to read and therefore I instinctively become wary around this person. So, I choose the word reserved because the sound of the word reserved with it’s harsh “v” and decisive “ed” because it suggests the mysteriousness and mistrust that I favor when I encounter this person. The word shy does not accomplish my purpose.

Of course, as you can see above, the word shy is appropriate by definition because one of the 4 meanings listed implies suspicion or mistrust of something. I could have said that I was shy of this person. But, the word shy by sound does not overtly suggest a state of brooding and transfers the object of emphasis from the individual being discussed to me. The sound of the word shy, and the stereotype behind it suggests bashfulness and temerity due to inferiority or the lack of ability to express oneself in a crowded or public setting.

The word reserved also suggests a self-inflicted restraint whereas the word shy implies that the withholding done by the shy individual is not under their control but rather tacitly under the control the environment or the individuals with whom the “shy” person is attempting to interact.

Obviously this example isn’t a case of life or death. There was no confusion between me and my relative due to our word choices. But for me, it’s the principal. We have firmly established my view of the individual being discussed on multiple levels leaving no room for confusion.

Choosing the right word is important because it conveys so much more beneath the sentence or the conversation about a multitude of components: from the speaker to the object or subject of the sentence. They are all at the mercy of the narrator. And, who knows? If understanding was jumbled at a pivotal historical crossroads, then the world we live in could be vastly different from what we know it to be today simply because someone got their wires crossed incorrectly.

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2 thoughts on “Definition versus Reality: A Thorough Word Examination

  1. Selecting the correct word makes all the difference. Mark Twain’s famous quote of the differnce between lightning and lightning-bug always comes to mind when I’m sifting through word choices. Great post.

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