That’s not what I mean!

Good writing often is about precision, picking just the right word to convey an idea. As frustrated editors sometimes cry out in anguish, “Words mean things!”

But what does a given word really mean? At one extreme we have the purists who seem to believe that a word means only what Noah Webster said it meant when he carved it in stone in 1828. At the other extreme we have Humpty Dumpty, who scornfully told Alice in Through the Looking Glass that, “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

In the vast expanse between those two poles we have real life, where words can have multiple meanings, take on new meanings and lose old ones as the years go by. Sometimes they can change drastically within a lifetime.

Especially troublesome are words that refer to emotionally laden or distasteful things. We try to cushion the language by using “polite” words, or euphemisms. But as linguist Steven Pinker wrote back in the 1990s, over time the euphemism becomes tainted by association. The polite word becomes impolite, so we have to come up with another euphemism. Eventually society will frown on that one as well.

Pinker used the example of the “water closet,” which became the “toilet” (originally a term for any body care, as in “toilet kit”), which became the “bathroom,” which became the “restroom,” which became the “lavatory.” Some people feel squeamish when talking about bodily functions, and that’s not going to change just because you came up with a different vocabulary.

There’s also a stigma attached to people whose mental capacity doesn’t fully develop. Gentle or precise words won’t change that either.

Back in 1910, psychologist Henry Goddard tried to come up with a classification system based on IQ scores. Someone with an IQ of 51 to 70, he said, should be classified as a moron. Those in the 25-to-50 range were imbeciles, and anyone below that was an idiot. Goddard, by the way, was director of research for the Vineland Training School for Feeble-Minded Girls and Boys in New Jersey.

Those words did catch on, but not quite the way Goddard might have envisioned.

When clinical terms become insults, we search for new terms. At some point we settled on “mentally retarded” as a kinder, gentler term. And the cycle started all over again. (Iva Cheung has written about that in detail at the Strong Language website.)

It’s probably no surprise that the vocabularies of religion, politics and ethnic heritage go through similar gyrations.

This can be frustrating for the writer who “knows” that a word doesn’t mean what so many readers will think it means. But there’s no way to win that battle. When enough people think a word has a new meaning or new connotations, then it does. It wouldn’t help even if you could stand next to them and point at the dictionary.

So instead of rolling your eyes, try rolling with the tide.


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