Words and Meaning

I suppose it is inevitable that I became a writer and editor. Words have always held great importance for me. The precise word for a precise meaning: a concept vital to me as a child, and still.

I remember contemplating the difference between the word “marriage” and the word “wedding,” knowing that these two words, while sometimes used interchangeably, meant something very different. Because I couldn’t formulate my question properly at the age of seven, I didn’t receive a clarifying answer when I asked my mother about the difference. The question continued to haunt the recesses of my mind, until at the age of nine I finally figured it out. A wedding was the ceremony that joined two people into a partnership called marriage. The wedding was a one-time event, and the marriage was the result. Don’t laugh. I felt immensely satisfied to have figured that one out on my own.

Then there was the night when I learned that it was, in fact, the Civil War, not the Silver War. I had asked my brother, by spelling, if he wanted to go play “S-I-L-V-E-R W-A-R” with his Army men after dinner. My father overheard and corrected me. As he and Mom often did. A fact for which I am eternally grateful.

I also learned, by similar means, that one made a cavalry charge when one played cowboys and Indians, not a Calvary charge.

Even today I am enchanted by language and words. PD James is one of my favorite authors because of how she finds the absolutely perfect word for what she means to write. When her character Adam Dalgliesh is sitting in a fire-lit room with his aunt, she writes: “The firelight threw gules on her long face, brown and carved like an Aztec’s, the eyes hooded, the nose long and straight above a wide mobile mouth.” I was enchanted. What was this word “gules”? I looked it up. It means the tincture of the color red, but in heraldry it also means an area marked with vertical lines. This blew me away. I could SEE the aunt’s face, tinted slightly red, with vertical wrinkles at the sides of the mouth, and on the cheeks. Who but PD James would use a word like gules to such an effect?

I am adamant about the importance of word use and word choice and fervent in my belief that we retain an important edge when we know and use our language to precise effect.  Too often, we are lazy with our language, and I think that we, as a culture, suffer as a result.

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