“May I Have a Word With You?”

“Words, he decided, were inadequate at best, impossible at worst. They meant too many things.”

― Patricia A. McKillip

When someone says, “May I have a word with you?” you can assume it’s not going to be just one word.

I have always been fascinated with language, especially words themselves.

Some words seem to have changed in meaning, like gay or intimate. Gay forever meant happy and carefree; now it’s used to describe a sexual orientation. Intimate use to mean close and dear; now it’s taken to politely mean sexual relations. (If you were to ever say, “He and I are gayfully intimate,” and you mean he is your closest friend you really enjoy being with, you might be misunderstood.)

Or then there’s local usage. In British English, when one says, “He’s my mate”, one means good or best friend. In American English, one’s mate is the person who shares your bed for other than sleep.

And then some words can be synonymous and yet have different meanings depending on context or vocal inflection.

Consider inquisitive and curious. Both imply seeking information, but inquisitive usually has negative connotations (nosey or prying into something one has no business knowing), whereas curious usually connotes seeking to learn (what is unknown and looks interesting.)

Or confident and egotistical. Both imply self-assured, but confident is usually taken as a positive statement about someone, whereas egotistical is used to say someone is too full of themself.

Or biased and prejudiced. These two words are often used interchangeably in a negative sense, implying against something. But they can also be meant in a positive way, meaning to be for something. Usually they need to be paired with the word “for” or “against” to impart meaning, without which the listener (reader) is either left to wonder what is meant or forced to ask for clarification or to simply assume, sometimes incorrectly. (I don’t know why, but to me they’ve always meant different things, biased is positive and prejudiced is negative. And that has always caused me grief when I use them that way. If I’m asked, “What do you think about __?” and I answer, “I’m biased”, I mean to say, “I’m in favor.” If I say, “I’m prejudiced,” it means I’m against. You can see my problem, how I’m usually misunderstood, and can probably imagine how many bad looks I’ve received, or how many angry words have come my way until I’m forced to further explain. But what I really don’t like is how both of these words have become almost exclusively associated with racial or ethnic hate.)

So I’ve decided to give up assumptions about whatever someone means with particular words. If I really care to know what they mean, I’ll ask. And I’m going to give up voluntarily explaining my words; you can assume anything you like or you can ask.

It’s really something of a miracle when two people today can converse without any misunderstandings.

So many words are inadequate and impossible without further explanation. They mean too many things.

– Bill


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