“It’s only words, and words are all I have, to take your heart away.”
—Song lyrics by The Bee Gees 1967
Having been a lover of words and a writer of one persuasion or another all my life, I tend to get fired up over words and the power they possess. There is gratification in choosing the right words and assembling them in the right order to create precise and effective communication. Yep, I’m a word nerd and that’s why my eagerly awaited Merriam-Webster (M-W) vocabulary word builder email can very often fuel that fire into a frenzy.
The M-W topic one day last week was about correctly choosing the word “boat” or “ship” to accurately describe a specific variety of watercraft and recognizing the defining characteristics of each to make the right choice. After polling a fleet of knowledgeable sources for definitions that have been floated on the topic, the final analysis was that most of them lack the exacting language a dictionary is expected to contain.
One of the more thought-provoking examples was, “You can put a boat onto a ship, but you can’t put a ship onto a boat.” Another was, “A boat is what you get into when the ship sinks.” My personal favorite was, “a boat is a dish you put the gravy in.”
Discussion docked at the conclusion that terminology more specific than “ships are bigger than boats,” was yet to be put into words. I’m thinking this confusion could be clarified with a quick note to my seafaring friend, Jim Chionsini, who could easily chart a course to the right conclusion.
Sailing on to smoother water, M-W succinctly stated in another article that, “The English language never sleeps, and neither does the dictionary.” Noting new words added by the 191-year-old company’s vocabulary volumes as of April of 2019, M-W stated, “a dictionary is a work in progress and reflects the shifts in culture and communication.” That is something of which every wordsmith worth his or her weight in words is keenly aware. And, if there’s anything that will spark more vigorous conversation among writers than determining which word is the best choice, it might be debating the use, or sometimes the usefulness, of new additions to the dictionary.
Some changes for April included, “snowflake” declaring it something other than simply frozen precipitation. The word has been bantered about in the media so much that it has now been branded as “someone regarded or treated as unique or special” and “someone who is overly sensitive.”
The same goes for poor “purple” which is no longer seen as just one of the 64 happy Crayon colors in the big box with the built-in sharpener I coveted as a kid. It’s now officially defined as a reference to “geographical areas where voters are split between Democrats and Republicans.”
Even Goldilocks’ picky porridge sampling in the classic story about her encounter with the three bears has made her name a metaphor that astronomers use to describe as “an area of planetary orbit in which temperatures are neither too hot nor too cold to support life.”
Whether it’s the freshly-minted words or those new definitions asserted to some old familiar faces, shifts in culture and communication can keep a wordsmith busy by day searching for the right definition and awake at night evaluating connotations within society. After all, the choice of one little word for your next literary masterpiece just might be the difference in whether you float your boat or sink your ship.
I used to worry that with my luck, my ship would finally come in on a day when I was at the airport. I’ve decided there’s no need to fret about it, though. As the song goes, “It’s only words …” And, the meaning of those words will likely have changed by the time my ship comes in anyway. Or, is it my boat?
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