What’s in a Word?

I often use words which are seemingly in context but if you challenged me to the exact meaning of the word, I would probably bluff you into believing I knew it.

I think my interest in words was sparked during college when I studied Latin. We were focusing on Book II of ‘The Aeneid’, translating it from Latin to English. Even though this was back in the early 90s, I remember the word fatalis being in the text & naturally as the word was linked to the Trojan Horse, fatal seemed the obvious translation. While it was obvious, it was also wrong, fated was the correct answer. If I could make that assumption with a Latin word, I could do the same with an English word.

If I am writing a short story or a chapter, once I reach the edit stage that is when the dictionary will probably make an appearance because I want the exact sense of the word, if it does not fit exactly, I find a more suitable word.

For someone who prides himself on being a good speller (in primary school I was once sent out of a class for over-celebrating coming top in a spelling test, fifty out of fifty if you are interested), I notice I err from time to time. Are these lapses caused by my brain being filled with a hell of a lot more information than I had as a kid or is there something more sinister (incidentally Roman augurs believed omens involving the left portended bad luck so all you lefties out there, keep your distance!)

The advent of the internet means that we tap away on computers, smartphones & tablets…letter writing & postcards are a thing of the past along with the dinosaurs. Even if you ignore the restrictive prices of postage, real physical writing is passé these days and so is the need to learn to spell correctly. Spell check is a metaphor for laziness because it will flag any anomalies. I do not use spell check at work, I regulate my own e-mails because actually it is not that difficult.

I digress. When I was a teenager, I used to send postcards/letters because I had friends who lived abroad. I enjoyed receiving postcards/letters being sent to me. I had an unspoken game with one friend, we would send the most awfully nondescript postcards we could find to each other. And so the internet took over with far less trouble than Skynet. I am not entirely sure when I bought my first computer however you can be sure fairly soon after that I stopped sending postcards.

My handwriting is atrocious now. At work, we type e-mails or letters on Word, no physical writing required thanks. I abhor with a fierce passion the misnomer ‘text speak’. I will not blast anyone with an Uzi for putting ‘2’ instead of ‘to/too’ but that is my limit, anything else & the safety clip is off. I definitely notice the generation gap (abyss would be more accurate) when an e-mail is being compiled by others, basic grammar structure & the nuance of words seem to be an alien concept. It is my greatest fear that an alien race will extirpate humanity not because we are destroying the planet, but because we will fuck up our first communication to them.

My use of extirpate is a point in case of being specific with words. I chose eradicate first then replaced it. Boomeranging back to the start of this ramble, it is interesting how the meaning of word can change. If I had written ‘decimate humanity’, hardly anyone would have batted an eyelid however the sense of the word is completely different from eradicate or extirpate. You could argue that our use of decimate will invariably be wrong. The most accurate description of decimation can be applied to one in every ten Roman soldiers being killed if there had been a mutiny. All the soldiers would have to draw lots so anyone of them could be sentenced to death. The modern meaning is construed as a large number of people/animals being killed which does not tally with a word which is formed from the Latin word for ten (decem).

In December, (nice link there…so why is it not the tenth month of the year? Answers on a postcard…oh wait.) I was genuinely surprised whilst doing some random research to learn of the truer meaning of a word I was familiar with. Companion can be broken down in meaning as ‘one who eats bread with another’. It had never occurred to me, so much so when I saw the definition online, I did not believe it & picked up my dictionary to verify it.

When words fall out of quotidian usage, they become archaic & are eventually removed from updated versions of dictionaries. This interests me. So what if a word is not used frequently? It is still a word and if there was one place it should be, it would be in a dictionary. If we factor in current social mores, we should fear more words disappearing…decimated even.

I have not sold my soul completely to the dark side. Yes, I have a laptop, guilty as charged. The dinosaur part of my personality will still grab a pen and notebook. Indeed if you were to look at my notes, you would think a dinosaur had written them.

Words are out there, use them, share them but most importantly, write them!


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