On Words by Kevin Sebastian

posted Mar 20, 2017, 11:13 AM by Writing Center
Words are fickle things; their meanings are wont to change every so often, and upon investigation, one will find that a word’s dictionary definition looks quite different from its use in earlier centuries. Certain features of meaning may have been inherited, but there is enough of a difference between them, so one can say, when looking at these definitions side-by-side, that they’re probably not sisters—maybe distant cousins twice-removed. For example, glamour presently refers to an appealing quality, typically one associated with looks—it is no incident that a fashion and beauty magazine makes use of the word as its name. Originally, however, glamour referred to an enchantment, a magic spell. Gay is another useful example: the word used to exclusively describe a state of happiness, but now, while it is still used to refer to happiness, a person saying gay in the 21st century understands that it is also a sexual identity. It can even mean both at the same time: calling me gay while I watch RuPaul’s Drag Race with my mom to my left and my partner to my right is an appropriate epithet on both counts. (Although, the word has taken an unfortunate and sinister alteration in meaning, and gay is now being used pejoratively. To this I say: gay is good, people.)

Knowing and understanding words, their meaning, their history, and their relationships to other words are, therefore, important. John Ruskin, an English critic of art and literature, argues similarly when writing that a critically-minded person “is learned in the PEERAGE of words [and] remembers all their ancestry, their intermarriages, distant relationships” (distant cousin twice-removed indeed). Relatedly, the English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge posits that good writing employs “a perfect appropriateness of the words to the meaning.” What these two ultimately say is that a thoughtful writer knows which word to use when because of the particularity of each word’s definition, which would be particular to the context wherein it will be used. For example, when explaining a quotation from a source, a writer can choose from a variety of verbs: is the source exemplifying an idea, or is it illustrating it? Perhaps the source is clarifying the idea instead. Of course, each of these words, arguably, may easily suffice as a verb in this case, but a thoughtful writer will understand that while exemplify, illustrate and clarify are close enough synonyms, they each bear a shade of meaning that will guide the writer’s choice in the same way that a painter chooses red over maroon. Like a painter’s pigments, words are the tools of the trade, and writers must utilize them with the same artistic judiciousness.

So go ahead and crack that dictionary and thesaurus open. Just make sure to actually read the definitions when trying to find the most appropriate word you need. You might even learn how glamour came to mean magic of a very different kind.