No surprise—I’ve always been a word geek. When I discovered dictionaries, my mind exploded. Send me to look up a word and I’ll be back half an hour later if you call me. One word leads to another. Encyclopedias are the same. It’s like looking at a family tree. All the connections and nuances are simply intriguing to me. The Oxford English Dictionary was almost my undoing. It not only gives the current definition(s) of a word, but its uses and changes in meaning, by date, since the word first appeared in print!
Even the word definition itself is interesting in its denotations (specific meanings) and connotations (inferences). Bear with me…. Coming from Latin and Old French, it combines the de, meaning “of,” and fini, meaning “ending” or “limit,” so quite specifically, it means “the limits or boundaries” of a word.
The most fascinating aspect of this that I have observed is how the essence of definition is important in our lives. Think about the arguments in which you’ve been involved (especially those of you in relationships with significant others) and how, if you think about it, most of these disagreements have stemmed from a lack of a shared definition. For instance, when you were younger, “Clean your room” meant one thing to your mother, and something quite different to you! My wife’s definition of “vacuuming” was very different from mine. I could run the vacuum through the entire house in the time it took her to do the family room. (What? Move furniture?)
When I was working with the National Council of Teachers of English, I was once on a three-year Commission to set “Guidelines for the Preparation of Secondary English/Language Arts Teachers.” About a dozen of us were on the panel—high school English teachers, college/ university teacher education professors (my role at the time), administrators, a college student. We were from cities as diverse as Los Angeles, New York City, Shenandoah (IA), Melbourne (Australia; NCTE represents all English-speaking countries!), London (England), a country in Africa I don’t remember, and others. Also, the demographics and geographic locations were just as disparate. The group met twice a year. It took us at least three meetings just to gain a working knowledge of how different our settings were. My friend in LA told of a sophomore English class with sixty students (yes, ONE class) who brought 57 different languages of nurture to the classroom. I explained that Nebraska (I was teaching at Peru State at the time) had entire high schools with about 3,000, and others with fewer than 100, and a “diversity” that was only about 4% of the population. The “Guidelines” that resulted were fairly broad!
These differences in our perspectives are cause for all sorts of misunderstandings as well as occasions for humor. Winter weather always reminds me of this. I laugh when the local television weather reporters (I still think “forecaster” is a misnomer; definitions again) get all bent out of shape over approaching snowstorms. “BLIZZARD WARNING” “STAY OFF THE STREETS” Well, some people should, as indicated by the fender benders that happen when we do get a few inches of snow. I admit, now and then it’s pretty dicey when the wind is blowing 40 mph and it’s snowing a couple of inches an hour. Why the hell is anyone out in that anyway unless you’re a First Responder of some sort? Then there are our neighbors to the south. The city officials in Atlanta were lambasted because they weren’t prepared for a snow and ice storm that hit the city a couple of weeks ago. Why would they have snowplows and mountains of road salt? I had a friend in Georgia when I was in high school. I used to give her a bad time when she’d write and tell me that they got out of school early because it was snowing—not accumulating, just snowing—and she’d never seen it before!
These misunderstandings happen in almost all aspects of our daily lives, and a majority of those disagreements are typically over something as simple as a shared definition of terms. Think about categorizing the music you like. When you sort the albums and artists in your iTunes library, what do you put into a file labeled “Rock”? Only Heavy Metal? I love ZZ Top. Are they Rock? Southern Rock? Texas Rock? Or are they a Blues band? Texas Blues, since that’s their home? Maybe they’re Country Western (Billy is looking more like Willie all the time). I listened to a group the other night that I’d hate to try to classify. They sounded at times like Lady Antebellum, and at others like Springsteen or the Dead. All original music. Next time you feel your temper rising, stop and think about the words being used before you resort to demeaning or derogatory attacks—because you’ve run out of anything productive to offer. If you have the chance, find out if everyone involved is operating from the same definitions. I think we get caught up in generalities, from politics and religion to food and beverages.
Excuse me. I have to let out the dog: black male canis lupus familiaris, about 75 lbs, with white markings on muzzle and chest; primarily Labrador but of undetermined mix; approximately ten years old….