2016 minus 47: not very wordy about words

Posted: 15 November 2015 in 2016minus, writing

Words matter. OK, I would say that, being a writer and all. But I’m not merely talking about context, which is an entirely different thing. As Peter David pointed out, the words “I hate you” shorn of context mean nothing. They could be spoken by a religious fundamentalist, a person betrayed… or just a child who’s been grounded for not tidying their room. They could be shouted with passion, spluttered in laughter or flatly as a mere statement of fact. 

But the choice of words used matters, even apart from the context in which they’re used. And by context, I don’t necessarily mean venue alone. Owen Jones has pointed out time and time again, upon being accused of hypocrisy when he attacks the media for bias, that he writes opinion pieces and they’re published in the Opinion section, whereas oft times, those at the Mail, the Sun etc write opinion pieces but they’re published as News.

I might differ with Owen on lots of things – hell, I do, not least about the merits of the current leader of the Labour Party – but on this he’s spot on.

But it’s news reporting that I’m thinking about in the main, and even the best journalists, striving to leave personal opinion out of the piece have struggles over the words to use. Has someone at the site of a terrorist attacked been injured or wounded? What is the difference? How will they be differently read or understood?

Did a minister assert something or claim it? Did he rebut it or deny it? Did he rebut it or refute it? (Well, that last is at least easy to distinguish: if conclusive evidence was offered, it was refuted; if not, use rebut.)

But then again, words change their meaning and definition is not necesssarily usage. I add the qualifier necessarily as I still tend to the view that a reputable dictionary is the best reference tool as to reconcile the definition of a word and its current proper usage. 

Take ‘decimate’. I’d say that everyone is aware of its colloquial usage; if an city has been decimated or an army, it’s been utterly destroyed. But as grammar pedants (like me, often, I’m afraid to say) never tire of pointing out, that’s not what the word originally meant and isn’t actually what it means now. To decimate is to reduce by one-tenth. Yeah, good luck with maintaining that. Common wisdom may not necessarily be wise, but it’s most definitely ever so common.

The first day of this century was 1st January 2001. S’funny, I remember there being far more celebrations as the calendar clicked over from 31st January 1999 to 1st January 2000.

And, as I sometimes mention, just because a word ‘sounds’ right doesn’t necessarily mean it is right. For years, I was convinced to the point of certainty that to defenestrate someone was to eviscerate them. It sounded right. Except it doesn’t mean that. At all. To defenestrate someone is to throw them out of a window. (If you remember your high school French for ‘window’, that will make perfect sense to  you.)  

I like words; I like using them, but I like using them accurately right as well.

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