What’s in a Word: Shared Worlds/Shared Words

Woman Reading a DiaryIn my last article on word-smithery, I made the observation that “There are two parties to [the author-reader relationship], of course, the writer has to know how to use the words, but the reader has to know how to read them. This requires a shared knowledge base or shared experience or, at minimum, a shared definition and/or connotation for the words.”

I was playing a video game the other day that brought this home in an intriguing way. The game is one of Big Fish Games Nancy Drew Mysteries (Tomb of the Lost Queen) and combines nostalgia for my childhood love of teenaged female sleuths with mummies and archaeologists (a hat trick, in my estimation). The play is highly educational, too, with lots of cool facts about Egyptian history that is told so engagingly as part of the plot that I sucked up every bit of it.

In conversation with one of the characters—an arrogant archaeologist named Abdullah—Nancy gets an earful about words and meaning. Nancy observes that Egyptian language is hard to understand even when you know the word definitions. In response, Abdullah says this is no surprise. “Imagine that a lion could talk,” he says. “He might use words you know, but because he is such a different creature, they would not mean the same thing to him that they might to you.” (And yes, I did think, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”)

The Pharaohs, Abdullah continued, were like that imaginary talking lion. They viewed the world in a completely different way than a modern day commoner. They considered themselves divine, for one thing.

We all experience words more or less differently depending on a great many things. Are we, like the Pharaohs, privileged members of a society, or its second or third class citizens? Are we from the heart of the culture or do we live at its fringes in some way? Are we male or female? Are we native to the culture or immigrants? Are we part of a family or alone? Are we religious or not? How well do we understand how the world works?

The answers to these questions will determine how we use and hear words. It will determine what words mean to us. 

Here’s the rub: We often wrongly assume that when our audience looks like us or is from the same social strata or the same gender or we believe we have some shared experience, they will experience words the same way we do.

brown and white eggsIn one of his talks in Europe in 1911, Abdu’l-Bahá (son of the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith) talked about the need to go beyond tolerating diversity to appreciating it. But then he goes on to say: “Likewise, when you meet those whose opinions differ from your own, do not turn away your face from them. All are seeking truth, and there are many roads leading thereto. Truth has many aspects, but it remains always and forever one. Do not allow difference of opinion, or diversity of thought to separate you from your fellow-men, or to be the cause of dispute, hatred and strife in your hearts.  Rather, search diligently for the truth and make all men your friends.”

Diversity of race is easy to notice when it comes down to skin color, but different shades of thought are harder to spot on sight. We can enter into a discussion with someone we imagine to be “like us” and to therefore expect that they share our vocabulary and word meanings simply because they are from the same social group, religion, school, club, gender, whatever. I find this is especially true in discussions of social issues.

Recently, I was discussing religion with a diverse group of folks on Facebook and found—not for the first time—that we did not agree on even the meaning of words such as “faith”, “belief”, “religion” or even the more specific terms “Christianity”, “Islam” etc. I started by explaining how I related to these words, but quickly discovered that my correspondents were not willing to “hear” those words the way I meant them. We could only talk past each other.

Take the word “faith”. To me it means to trust in something or someone for a variety of reasons that may include intuition, experience, observation or authority. To them it meant simply blind belief in the absence of any facts or evidence. In fact, they insisted that if reason or experience or evidence played a part, it wasn’t really faith. Rather than getting into a semantical argument about where that concept of faith came from, I suggested we use the Oxford dictionary definition. No go. My correspondents felt that faith was always negative and that no sane human being should have it. They did not have faith; they trusted only in proven premises.

“Fine,” I said. “Instead of saying I have faith, I’ll say that I accept this or that premise based on experience, intuition, authority, etc.” That worked no better, but that’s not the point of this blog. The point is that we could not really begin to have a dialogue until we were all on the same page. Like the ancient Pharaoh and the modern commoner, we were looking at the world from completely different points of view.

This same disconnect can happen between a writer and readers. I mentioned last time that a character’s use of the word “chops” to describe skill at something was disconcerting to one of my collaborators on a novel. The situation has evolved since then, and actually bears on several different aspects of a writer’s life.

suck fairyWriters almost always hand their work off to someone else to read. Beta readers, critters (i.e. those who critique), editors and, ultimately, readers. There are many things that can go wrong if the writer and those other parties don’t share an appreciation of what words mean. Fantasy readers are used to seeing words like “glamour”, “changeling”, “fey”, for example. If you pass your work off to readers who do not share your understanding of what those words mean, they will have a completely different experience of your work than someone who does.

What this suggests, in practice, is that a writer is best served by readers who do have that shared understanding. Of course, that’s not always possible. So, a writer has to take that lack of shared understanding into account when processing input from readers who aren’t familiar with their genre. My collaborators didn’t know what a glamour was. For the record, in fantasy usage, a glamour is the projection of a false appearance or illusion, often with the additional element of appearing more attractive. One of my collaborators had seen it in Charlaine Harris’ work (or rather heard it on the True Blood TV show) and assumed (1) that it was a word Harris had coined and therefore we shouldn’t use it, and (2) that it meant a character was telepathically controlling other people. They read every scene with that understanding and were understandably confused.

That underscores why a reader who knows the staples of the genre you write can be so much more helpful. The entire meaning of an ongoing story element can be lost if a word the critter reads doesn’t mean what he thinks it means.

This extends to turns of phrase that may be regional or age-dependent and which a writer might use to mark a particular character’s speech. Let’s say you have a character from the mid-West who says something “went to hell in a handbasket”, or “is aces in my book”. Or you have a character pulled out of time from the 1920s who insists on saying something is the “bees knees” or “the cat’s meow”. These are great ways to differentiate character voices, or place them in time and space, but you can’t trust that every reader is going to understand them.

What to do? Do you try to eliminate that sort of verbal character trait, or stick to safe generic terms and modern turns of phrase? I reject that idea, personally. I don’t want all my characters to speak with the same “voice”, nor do I want my prose to be safe and generic. Instead, I look for ways to telegraph the meaning contextually or, better yet, illustrate it in some way.

tardis_xmasFor example, if my out-of-time flapper (look it up), gushes that the time traveller’s cell phone is the “cat’s meow” I might have another character say, “Well, no, that was my ring tone.” Thereby, giving the first character an opportunity to explain, “I mean it’s really … uh … terrific.”

That could even become a sort of running gag in the story.

Now, pause, and consider what a “running gag” might look like in someone else’s mental world.



What’s in a Word: Shared Worlds/Shared Words — 5 Comments

  1. Period slang — oh! What a delightful sinkhole for research time that can be! And how awfully difficult, especially if the search is for four-letter words or other terms that could not be respectably written down.

  2. I was looking in on that discussion, and despite the fact that you and I have (as far as I can remember, and please forgive me if I’m wrong) never met, come from different cultures and have different worldviews, my understanding of words such as “faith” and “belief” is much the same as yours. Your interlocutors might be said to have more in common with you, culturally, than I do, and yet they interpret the words differently from both of us and will hear no other interpretations…because they do not *want* to.

    There is an element of volition in the sharing of language. Your use of the word “glamour” was, I’m guessing, made clear in the context; your collaborators were confused, not only because they had not encountered the alternative usage before, but because they had made an assumption about the word’s origin and meaning and were unwilling to alter or amend that assumption. In order to share language, one must be open to the possibility that one’s ideas about it may be changed.

    Of course it’s not always that easy. I have a copy of Greer Gilman’s Moonwise on my bookshelf. Many people have raved about it, but after repeated attempts I have yet to get more than a few pages into it, because its use of language is so eccentric (to me) that I simply cannot understand it; to me it’s as impenetrable as Finnegans Wake. I can’t even imagine how to achieve a mindset in which I could comprehend it, much as I might (and do) want to. I think understanding the words of a pharaoh who thought himself divine would be a picnic by comparison.

    • In a sense, Zander, I think the ability to accept different understandings of words is part of a reader’s willing suspension of disbelief. Some writers (James Joyce being a case in point) may be asking too much of some readers (I certainly include myself in that.)

      My favorite novel that I’ve written (Taco Del & the Fabled Tree of Destiny) actually uses coined terms that I define by context and that do require some learning on the point of the reader. (The characters speak a patoi of English, Spanish and Chinese and live in a culture based on books they discovered in City Lights bookstore. So they say someone is “jinbing” if they’re a little nuts, “number one jade” if they’re pretty keen, and “deadjim” if they’re, well, dead, Jim.

      Because I want to challenge readers with my ideas, not with my use of language, I try not to make the language too thick with new words. Even so, I’ve had a few readers who found Taco Del a bit of a challenge, but very few. I think because my goal is communication. If I fail to communicate, I have failed as a writer or a communicator.

      Re the dialogue you mentioned above, I agree that the interlocutors, as you call them, did not want to understand. They were not willing to suspend their disbelief. (Or, as Adam Savage put it, “I reject your reality and substitute my own.”) In that case—a live dialogue between actual human beings—they were not interested in communication. At least not two-way communication. The writer’s goal is to communicate clearly; the listener’s or reader’s goal should be to try to extract meaning from what the writer writes. Otherwise, what’s the point?

      It’s sad, too, because I recall so many times in my life when dialogues with someone whose world view I didn’t share gave me intense “aha” moments about life, the universe, and everything.

    • At the root, of course, “glamour” comes from “grammar”. As known as “book learning” and from that “magic.”