Yes, I’m a fan of absurd humor. (The intentional kind, anyway … the Knights Who Say Ni? Yes, please!)
But Inigo Montoya (“Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”) from another favorite, The Princess Bride, has been getting a workout lately as I’ve run up against quite a few people using words that are apparently a mystery to them. To quote Inigo: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Man, I really need to watch some movies this weekend.
Sometimes it’s just a simple misspeak—say, a malapropism or spoonerism. The tongue can easily get ahead of the brain, resulting in slips of the tongue. Which is why I say “Lord have Murray” after the one day when I tried and failed to say “Lord have mercy”—sometimes those slips of the tongue are too fun to let pass by.
Poor Murray. He’s just so put-upon.
But often the mistake is made by not knowing the definition of the word being used. It should be inconceivable (meaning incapable of being imagined or believed; bonus points if you got the reference) that people would use words without knowing their meanings, but it happens all the time, often because someone thinks a word will make him seem smarter, or in some mistaken idea that he’s being funny. But no, sorry, it only makes that person look foolish. That might be why so many people often hold their heads in their hands, if just to attempt to stifle the laughter.
I’ve worked with someone who continually puts in random words that I’m positive he doesn’t understand at odd places, and often misspelled (dude, it’s spelled “diphthong”), apparently because he thinks that’s good writin’. Head. In. Hands.
My rule on this particular issue is not to use a word if I don’t know its definition. Which is why I do my best to double- and triple-check many words I use, even ones I use often, especially since the stroke. I look foolish enough all on my own without adding mistakes like that.
Other times it may be because you misunderstood the word as a child, or misunderstood the context as an adult, and no one corrected you until much later.
Mike Pope shared on Visual Thesaurus:
“[W]hen I was in my 20s, a colleague once confessed to me that he’d heard the phrase “erstwhile friend” as a youngster and deduced that erstwhile meant “esteemed” or “noble.” He’d been using erstwhile with that assumption for years, and boy, was he mortified when someone finally clued him in that it actually means “former.” (It’s possible, though I might not have told him at the time, that I also had thought that until his confession.)”
I still recall all those years as a kid when I kept picturing King Kong in fatigues every time a newscaster said “guerrilla warfare.” As an adult I’ve worked with a few people who used “in lieu of” (instead of) rather than “in light of” (because of). I didn’t beat them about the head even when I reaaaaaally wanted to. Play nice, Mama said.
Then there are the words that people mix up because they’re homophones, or because of confusion. For example, compliment means to flatter, or a nice remark; complement means a full set, or things that work well together. Versus means against; verses are parts of songs. To imply something is to say something indirectly, while infer means to form an opinion based on evidence and reason; the easiest way to remember the distinction is that the speaker implies, but the listener infers.
Yeah, it seems no one ever gets that one right.
Whatever the reason, we have a problem if everyone operates using their own definitions of words. If we can’t agree on what words mean, next thing you know, we’ll be dealing with “alternative facts.”
Oh … wait.
Glenn Whitfield of the Performance Improvement blog wrote in 2012 that “definitions enable us to have a common understanding of a word or subject; they allow us to all be on the same page when discussing or reading about an issue.”
He’s absolutely correct; without that agreement on what words mean, communication becomes difficult, if not impossible, as if everyone in the room is speaking a different language, and not the ones that most people know a few words of (most important phrase in any language, as far as I’m concerned: Where’s the bathroom?). They’d be the languages spoken by only a few native speakers, such as Chamicuro in Peru, or Tirahi (which appears now to be dormant) in the Nangarhar Province of Afghanistan. I know my two years of high school French that I barely remember would be useless.
But maybe lack of meaningful communication is the point … people might start asking questions …
Politics seems to be at the heart of a lot of the urge to redefine words to one’s advantage, and it’s something that happens all across the spectrum (though one side seems to think only the other side does that), with the new definition and its attached narrative repeated until it takes hold on its own. Which is why, for example, “elite,” once a very positive term, has become basically the root of all evil (let me think … did the Bible say the root of all evil was being elite?).
Since apparently only one side can be right in this hyper-political atmosphere, what are people who care about words to do? Pardon me for borrowing a word from a current political movement: Resist, no matter where your political beliefs lie.
Besides, it ticks partisans off when you reclaim words they’ve worked so hard to muddle, and that’s just fun.
Words have meaning, and we need to recognize that reckless redefining and lack of knowledge just contribute to more misunderstanding. Stand strong against those who misuse words for their own purposes.
And tell ’em for me, please, that a sense of humor might be worth looking into … and maybe a little less Orwell too. Animal Farm and 1984 are fiction, you know.