The lost word

Robert Valentine Senior lecturer of advertising

Column by Robert Valentine, senior lecturer of advertising

If you write for magazines, edit books, and prepare the copy for advertising, write sermons, political speeches, comedy or if you are a student, words become the tools of your trade. You would no more abuse a word than a good carpenter would leave a well-made handsaw in the rain. If you let words lose their proper meanings, you lose the power to communicate.

You are a reader, we assume, because you are reading this column. It is not a huge stretch of the imagination to conclude that you have a certain respect for the meanings of words, too. If writers switch meanings or obscure them for no apparent reason, readers find themselves “lost at sea,” or “lost as a ball in high weeds,” or (my personal favorite) “as lost as an Easter egg in June.”

It is possible that a writer or speaker may use a proper word in a proper way, but that your experience did not include the word in your mental dictionary. Even at the age of 46 (to which I now admit among strangers), I encounter words every day whose meanings are new to me. Still, when we have a perfectly pedestrian word that is used by some writer or speaker to carry freight for which it is unsuited, we are needlessly confused. Some people get testy about it.

One such person was the great American writer, Mark Twain. As he put it: “The difference between the right word and the nearly right word is the difference between lightning and lightning bug.” For Twain, the craftsman, words were precious tools with which one could order a steak with potatoes, or create a masterpiece that would endure for more than a century. A tool will do either task, and both tasks are important in our society.

So, it was a sad moment when, some years ago, the children left “awesome” out in the snow all winter, and it warped. Now, the word that used to represent the grandeur of a Pacific sunset, or the birth of a baby, has come to express our feelings over hearing that we’re going to have spaghetti for supper. While I yield to no one in my affection for spaghetti,

I think I can recognize the difference between the inspiring spectacle of the evening sun on the blue water and the satisfying slide of a lump of starch into an already-full belly. Only one of those experiences can actually inspire awe: a paralysis of mind and emotion brought on by the sudden realization that the world is a place of experiences beyond our power to comprehend.

Let us also say goodbye to another member of the “A” family: Amazing. Even people who know better have begun to use it in common conversation. To be amazed is “to be stunned or stupefied; put out of one’s wits as if by a blow to the head.” There are some amazing things out there in the world, but coffee, sprinkles on ice cream and the opportunity to take a make up-test are not among them. Still, perfectly sane people have used the word “amazing” to describe their reaction to each of these. So, now, in context, what does “amazing” mean?

It means, like its companion word, “awesome,” less and less. Finally, if we keep uttering it without thinking, it will mean nothing. We might just as well jabber like apes, or speak like politicians.

Words can change their meanings. It has happened before and will happen again. New words are introduced daily, and the demand to know what each word means expands moment by moment.

Perhaps, if we all try to be more careful with these precious tools, we will have fewer “failures to communicate.” Over Thanksgiving Break, maybe I’ll re-read the dictionary.

I forget how it ends, anyway.