Lately I’ve been thinking about words we use and why we use them. The whole point of words – at least in my view – was to convey meaning. Of course, in today’s technologically advanced world, the means to do this have exploded: long letters or e-mails have given way to 140-character texts or tweets, or the even subtler dick pic. It’s worth a thousand words, innit? Communication is as much an art form as it is a skill and universal agreement is a myth, especially when it comes to the meaning of words. Communication in English is even more problematic considering the monstrous blob of vocabulary and influences that the language has accumulated over its many centuries of haphazard evolution. This Juggernaut of an international lingua franca continues to absorb the world’s vernaculars with all the Sturm und Drang and to grow with panache, running amok on the internet and through other means we use to convey – you guessed it- meaning. And this sometimes leads to conflict – try telling an American that you’d like to bum a fag and see how they react. Seriously, do it.
When it comes to words, without getting too technical, there are two main “meanings” to look out for. What’s called “denotation” (the literal sense) and “connotation”, that is to say things what you might refer to using this word. That could cover innuendo, figurative speech, or sarcasm, and any feelings or ideas related to that word, what have you. Essentially, it’s a complex system to navigate when trying to get your – an I keep using this word with all its connotations – “meaning” across. If you catch my drift.
I’m in the camp that advocates use of the literal sense of words (like, literally), depending on context, of course. It has become my belief that if we use something too much – be it a word or a tool, for instance a spade – without knowledge of its original use or purpose or intent, it detracts from any (forgive me for this) meaning that tool might have. I mean to say meaningful use (if it bothers you, let me know. I mean well, I promise.) So, let’s call a spade a spade, shall we? Because prior knowledge grants you the unique ability of knowing exactly what the fudge you’re talking about, savvy? Again, I stress – depending on context.
Granted, it might not always do you much good to know that tampons were originally intended to keep machine guns from going damp during WWI before their more common use today. But you might learn a thing or two about the priorities of this world and, all in all, it will be a more enriching experience. And it might not make you feel any better to know that “mortgage” literally translates as “death pledge”, but then again, you may think twice about getting one. I did find it enlightening, however, to know that “macabre” comes from “maqabir” which is “cemetery” in Arabic. That explains the literal definition of the word, and shows its origin. Its connotations may be plenty, but essentially, it means “related to death”, which may be spooky, but doesn’t need to be.
While linguistics is not my main training or area of expertise, I do fancy myself a cunning linguist (hee hee). But seriously, it does seem to be increasingly important to mind what you say. To quote a poem I like: “To say what you believe in a manner that bespeaks the determination with which you believe it.” It is, therefore important, how you say what you mean, not just in intonation, but also through your choice of words.
I have decided, therefore, to stop using certain words, idioms and phrases because, while they are common enough and their connotations may vary and even be useful, I find their denotation distasteful, wrong or just not suitable to my needs. I’m not advocating anyone do this, by the way, but if you take one thing away from this post, let it be this:
Think before you speak.
So, the main offenders are:
“Gay” – with the connotation that it’s something bad, wrong or – ahem – “queer”. It bothers me whenever I hear a friend say “that’s so gay”, with the implication being negative more often than not. Occasionally, when I look upon a rainbow coloured sparkling statue with an erect male member the size of one’s own envy… sure, then I might say “that is so gay” and mean it. But with the baggage that this has right now, I feel that people should stop using the term and let the right demographic claim it for themselves, if they so wish.
Remember when gay used to just mean “happy”? Me neither.
“Pussy” – as in “coward”. I nearly forgot about this one because I never use it. But really, how can you possibly use this word with that meaning and not admit that you’re sexist? Well, you would, wouldn’t you? Shame on you. Yes, you.
“Cocksucker” – this would be just one of the long list of expletives that, in my book, should be discontinued. It is related to the first entry, in that the implication here is that anyone who dabbles in the occasional practice of fellatio is, for that reason alone, a person with whom we do not wish to associate. Setting aside your personal feelings about sex, the male genitalia or its relationship to other people’s orifices, it really is time we stop judging people based on how they shag. Otherwise, how long before we start using “missionary” to mean “boring”? The problem I can see with this dreadful word (no, not “missionary”, the other one) is that it’s so often used that maybe to your regular cis, straight males or females, it doesn’t seem that bothersome to call someone (particularly a male) a penile aficionado – I mean, we’ve always used that word in that context, what’s the harm? If you stop to think about it, you’re implying that someone is equatable to, say, a rectum (i.e. an asshole) because of their sexual preferences. And that, quite frankly, is barbaric and stupid.
For that matter, and speaking of the missionary, let me add to this list a few words I just remembered: “pedestrian” and “prosaic” to mean “boring”. As a fan of both walking and prose, I’m offended.
“Jesus”, or “oh, my god” or “for god’s sake” or any variation invoking some deity or another. Yours sincerely happens to be an atheist. I’ve even given up on calling myself agnostic, I just don’t buy it, any of the mysticism. Setting aside the benefits or pitfalls of this belief, I did find it rather silly to hear myself shouting “Jesus Christ”. Admittedly, I considered myself safe from eternal damnation, and wasn’t too nervous that I’d blasphemed. If you don’t believe, then that shouldn’t bother you. But if you don’t believe, why are you calling out the name of a deity you’re convinced doesn’t exist? What’s the point? I might as well go around screaming “Oh, great Kukulkan” or “by Odin’s beard” or “Sweet Harry Krishner!” for all the good it’ll do me. Or “Hastur, Hastur, Hast-”
The list goes on. Actually, it might do to write these all on a list – I mean, literally – but for now I’m content to just think before I speak. More research would be required and I’m fully aware of the fact that I use some words without thinking twice about their meaning. I mean, for Thor’s sake, it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks, by Jingo. I caught myself the other day saying something was very gauche, and despite being right-handed myself, I can’t fault someone for favouring the left (political or otherwise). And one may wonder why it would matter what this word or that meant at a different time as long as we understand what the other person is saying when they use it. Fair point, but if we use words without sparing a thought to what their original point and purpose was, then the term “meaning” loses all… well, sense (thought I’d use that other word, ha?). Then words become not the conduit for our message, the tool for communication, but merely the empty shells we throw into enemy trenches to explode like so many china pots. Or like empty chairs we try to rearrange on the deck of the Titanic.
I mean pointless.
P.S.: That poem I mentioned –