Monday, November 22, 2010

Le mot juste

The right word... well, a single word can convey a lot. There are words with connotations that can come across as positive or negative. Connotation can be situation-dependent, so what is positive in one context can be negative in another. That's why precision of language can be so important, because some words mean more than what they mean.

I was reading an article about family money issues. It was just one of those articles you read while waiting for your car to be repaired, you know? But this one posed a question and then asked regular people what they thought. The question was, "If you help one of your children out financially, should you tell the others?"

Hmm. Good question, especially in this time of financial insecurity for young people. One of the respondents said, "Yes, you should tell the other children, because you shouldn't keep secrets from them."

Another said, "If you help one child out, you should keep it confidential."

Now I was struck by that, because (as usual) I agreed with whatever I was reading. (I'm really easy.) Oh, right! Keeping secrets is bad! Oh. Right. Keeping confidentiality is good.

Hmm. Okay, so I didn't actually come to a decision about this issue. But I did notice that both respondents used the same word (keep) and then another word that means the same basic thing. One talked of "keep secrets" and the other said "keep confidential."

Both those refer to the very same action: Doing something and saying nothing about it.

But from one view, that's "keeping secrets" and bad, and from the other view, that's "keeping confidentiality" and good.

For the writer, the existence of "connoted terms" like "secret" and "confidentiality" can be another tool in the toolbox. Those who live or die by rhetoric already know this. They know that the language is full of paired synonyms, one which could be positive in this context, and one which would be negative. And the one you choose can give a boost to the tone or feel of your sentence or paragraph.

Let's work on some of these pairs, just for fun. The ladies (talk about a connoted term :) will recall a list of masculine and feminine attributes that were actually the same:
Men are determined; women are stubborn.
Men are ambitious; women are pushy.
and there were reversals, where the attribute that was positive in women was negative in men:
Women are gentle; men are weak.
Women are nurturing; men are needy.

Okay, enough old-line feminism. :) Point is, if you want to make determination a negative, call it "stubbornness," right?

So what are some pairs like that?

My kids point out that the word "youth" almost always is connected to something negative, while "teen" is a pretty positive term, and "young adult" is quite positive.

How about "moral" and "moralistic?" Okay, they might mean something different, but how much of the difference is actual, and how much is connotation? That is, I might think (insert famous preacher's name) is "moralistic," but I bet he thinks he's "moral." The words have slightly different meanings, though the same basic meaning, and the connotation will probably be negative or positive.

"Interrogation" and "questioning or asking." Have you ever tried in a friendly fashion to get information out of a youth, I mean teen? He says, "Stop interrogating me!" and you say, all injured innocence, "I'm just asking!"

Even colors. I remember buying a lovely sweater that the boutique owner described as "citrine," but my dad called "baby shit yellow."

What about "escape" (positive) and "abscond" (negative)?

"Praise" and "flattery?"

What are some others, and how would you take advantage of their connotations in sentences or passages? How about dialogue?



Jordan said...

I'm intrigued by the two opposite meanings of cleave: to cut apart (cleave meat) and to cling together (cleave unto her).

Oh, cling gets me thinking of a whole spectrum: have, hold, cling to, clutch, carry, etc.

I like the idea of echoing the words but with these opposite meanings/phrasal meanings (the cleave/cleave example or your keep/keep example). Reminds me of a post here a while ago about enjambment.

Clearly, these distinctions can be useful in characterization—you can characterize not only the character who chooses to wear a "citrine" sweater, but the character doing the describing, how they feel about the person, the color, etc.

This also makes me think of comic routines or running gags in films/TV, where the characters persistently misuse/misinterpret terms. (Third base!)

I love posts like this!! Is this the kind of thing we'll be discussing in the December workshop?

Debbie said...

A female character could be described as svelte, willowy, lithe. Positive. Skeletal and bony are negative.

Male counterpart could lanky, fit, lean for positive descriptions. Scrawny is not so positive.

More neutral descriptions are slim, thin or slender.

Edittorrent said...

Jordan, you know what always confuses me:
"Cling Peaches" are usually pretty smooth, while in "freestone" peaches, bits of the pit still cling to the peach. Yes, this is the sort of thing I worry about. :)

Debbie, good call! I was trying to describe a male character, and decided against "skinny" and went with "lean." With all the body issues out there, I actually think using the wrong word could get readers anxious!


Carol Riggs said...

Good post! It all depends on the connotation you want in your writing, as to which word you choose. HaHA, I had to laugh about your interrogation of a teen example, because I can so relate. Only my daughters used to call it "harassing" them. LOL

Jordan said...

@Alicia—Really? I thought it was supposed to be the other way around with peaches. I always eat them out of a can, so I wouldn't know.

Jordan said...

Whoa, just came across this news today: in the UK, lots of people eating a vegetarian diet could "save the national health care system" a boatload of money—but in Brazil, the meat-dependent economy would "lose" and be "cost" millions.

Maybe I'm reading this wrong, but it looks like this is the same thing—money not being spent—cast in two different lights. It's good not to spend money in the healthcare sector but not in food.

Janet O'Kane said...

A thought-provoking post - thank you. I'm always fascinated by the selective use of words in politics. For example, the UK's government never 'spends' our money, it always 'invests' it.