Meanings of Words

Find below this week’s blog entry on the meanings of words. I missed a week last week as I’ve been on a road trip all over New England, mostly back woods Maine and way off-shore Maine. Suffice it to say Internet access was foggy…

Writers ought to know what words mean. They should know that a knife stabs or slashes, but a harpoon pierces. Things can get gray when dealing with a vampire’s fangs ‘slicing’ through veins and a ghoul’s claws ‘eviscerating’ flesh. The point being that differences stemming from a word’s etymology matter a great deal, as ‘eviscerate’ means to remove organs and ‘excoriate’ to remove flesh.

Common speech has in begun to blur these differences–‘decimation’, for example, came from a type of punishment for cowardice employed by Roman legions where every tenth soldier was executed, leaving said legion in a particular state of ruin. Nowadays we often use decimate as a synonym for destroy, with an attempt at making it superlative: “The warhead decimated the cemetery and all the zombies in it.”

When we read H.P. Lovecraft’s descriptions of ‘glamorous’ old towns in New England, he is not talking about a Diesel Jeans outlet opening in downtown Stonington. He means instead that the church steeples and mansard edifices are covered in dazzling flashes of sunlight (glamor (or in Lovecraft’s case ‘glamour’). This meaning comes from a Scots-English root that means ‘to bewitch’, and in particular, bewitch involving a change of appearance. Of course, in the case of glamour, the contemporary change of meaning has wholly taken over, so to use it in the archaic sense would only work in special situations. It’s still useful to know these roots, though, when deciding whether a rock-star incubus is ‘glamorous’ (bewitching) or ‘enthralling’ (enslaving).

Creepily sensual poet Emily Dickinson offers another example of this kind of subtlety when she writes “And do I smile, such cordial light/ Upon the Valley glow/ It is as a Vesuvian face/ Had let its pleasure through” Cordial here does not mean a casual toss of light into a valley, but something that comes from the heart (Latin root cor/cordis) pouring light on another part of the anatomy. One could argue that she is deciding whether to let emotions get involved in a stone-faced but very physical affair.

So it’s worth keeping in mind the origins of words. Not for the sake of making one’s writing ‘fancier’, but rather to give it simultaneous clarity and depth.

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