Words: know what you mean when you say them

BY BOB WACHS
Posted 1/3/19

In one way or another, throughout most of my life I’ve used words to make a living. Other than when I bagged groceries or was a soda jerk – not to be confused with being a regular jerk – or had a brief career as a house painter, words have been my thing.

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Words: know what you mean when you say them

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Posted

In one way or another, throughout most of my life I’ve used words to make a living. Other than when I bagged groceries or was a soda jerk – not to be confused with being a regular jerk – or had a brief career as a house painter, words have been my thing.
Sometimes it was on the printed pages of this newspaper or another one or two. Sometimes it was on the pages of magazines and newsletters. And sometimes it was from behind the pulpits of various churches.
I’m pretty sure I didn’t always do a great job on every occasion. Sometimes it was because I was in over my head; sometimes it was because there wasn’t enough information or time to do a good job. At other times I just wasn’t on my “A” game. And sometimes it was because the reader or hearer put their own different spin on the words and the message was lost in the noise.
Words are how we communicate with our fellow creature, human and otherwise. Words are how we convey information or share ideas and thoughts. They’re not the only way – consider body language, for instance. If you don’t say a word but turn your back on someone who’s talking to you, then you’ve said a mouthful without ever uttering a sound. But still, words remain our primary means of communication.
In that regard, there are several significant considerations about them. One is the difference between how they’re said and how they appear on a printed page. Sarcasm, for instance, is sometimes hard to pick up in print but so easily understood when spoken.
Another is simply how they’re said and what an emphasis on different words can mean. Consider, for instance, the difference in meaning between “I love you” and “I love you.”
But of all the things about words, perhaps the most critical one is to make sure you use the right one. And sometimes that’s hard in the English language, which has been described as one of the most difficult for non-natives to master.
One of the biggest problems in communicating, however, is that often natives fall into the same category. Sometimes it’s harmless. For instance, a dear sweet lady, long gone now, who was a second mama to me more often than not confused the words “allergy” and “allergic.” One more than one occasion, she would say “I’m allergy to (whatever).” No harm done there; I knew what she was stabbing at so there was communication.
At other times, tough, there can be a serious flaw, perhaps because of a limited vocabulary or maybe downright ignorance. A recent news story told of how a monument in Winston-Salem dedicated to the memory of Confederate soldiers in the War Between the States was defaced.
Scrawled on the base on which the statue stood were the words “cowards & traitors.” At this point, I’m not going to get into the current political correctness fight going on about such items other than to point out that, to me, if someone has time to vandalize something with which they disagree then they probably have time to volunteer at a nursing home or help out with child literacy classes. The past is past; learn from it and live in the present with an idea to help the future.
Instead, my take on this is how wrong the vandal(s) was (were) with the choice of words to try to make a point. In a literal sense, there was a touch of “traitor” involved in the Civil War in the sense of some folks pledging allegiance to something other than the union of states forged during the American war for independence.
And if that’s the definition and meaning of “traitor,” do you suppose the statue vandal would think the Americans who took part in the 1776 war were traitors? After all, the goal of that conflict was to overthrow England’s presence in America while the South’s goal in 1860 was not to overthrow Washington but to form a separate union.
So, while the word “traitor” could have different meanings across the spectrum, our vandal really did himself in with the choice of the word “coward.” As I noted earlier, I don’t claim to be the ultimate authority on much of anything but I do have some experience with words. To make sure this was a correct road to go down, I went to Mr. Webster, whose book is the definitive on words.
Here I quote his meaning of coward: “one who shows disgraceful fear or timidity.” Friends, I have been to the Gettysburg battlefield where men who wore the blue and the gray breathed their last. I have walked up the mile-long hill where Robert E. Lee sent 15,000 men on a wide-open walk in the face of cannon and rifles.
A coward would not make that walk.
Instead, a coward marks a statue under the cover of darkness, seemingly because he does not have the courage of his convictions but instead shows “disgraceful fear or timidity.”
Please, dear reader, if you’re going to use words, wherever you use them use the right ones.

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