Saturday, October 15

The Definition of Words

Words, words, word - we use them all the time. For writers, they are our bread and butter. When did we learn how to use words?

When we were little, we listened and we spoke and they taught us some stuff in school. We caught onto the meanings and the context of certain things. We looked in our pocket dictionaries when we had to. We learned how to spell. To this day, in my head I still spell b-e-c-a-u-s-e whenever I hand-write it. Not because I need the reminder but because it has become a habit.

The best test of your knowledge is explaining something to someone else. Asking questions doesn't make you ignorant, although that idea can often keep us from doing so out of embarrassment. Being afraid to ask the question and never learning the answer, that's ignorant.

In high school, I would sit next to students who had English as their second (or even third) language. They'd sometimes ask me the definition of a word and I would do my best to explain it to them. In turn, I saught their assistance in other areas.

Defining words can be difficult. One word, not understood, needs several more to explain it. How tedious! When I try to define words I know the use of oh-so-well, I draw a blank. Could these be specimens of questions unasked all those years ago? I understood the meaning of the word but I never learnt how to define it.

Yes, explaining words is no picnic. The pop quiz always comes at the mouth of a 5 year old. At worst, a pretentious 5 year old whom, if you can't answer their question, will assume that you are stupid.

"What does this mean?"

"Uhh...well, it means, um..."

"You don't know, do you?"

"I do know, I'm just thinking of how to..."

"I'll ask a grown-up."

"I am a grown-up. I do know. Come back here! ...I fail at life."

Yes. You do.

Lucky for us, we have the internet. We can check online dictionaries for definitions, without risking embarrassment or scrutiny.

I was once reading over a favourite scene in 'Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix' where Severus Snape is described by Sirius Black as being Lucius Malfoy's "lapdog." Though I knew what the word meant, I wanted to look up the exact definition, so I checked in an online dictionary.

1. a small dog that sits in the lap.


2. a person that does another's bidding.

Who knew that dictionaries could be so entertaining?

While I don't think that reading a dictionary can be a great past-time, I have been known to look through them for funky, obscure and unknown words.

So while I'm never going to be sure of the exact definition for every word that I use, I'm going to try and catch myself out when I'm sure I have no clue how to explain it to someone else. Though maybe not those 5 year olds. They still send me running.


austinblan said...

This reminds me of something I've noticed that we do a lot in today's culture. Many times, just going on context, we learn how words are used without really becoming familiar with them. One thing I enjoy doing is instead making associations of usage, I enjoy sitting down and "figuring it out", maybe researching its etymology. I enjoy taking it apart piece-by-piece, looking at its roots, to become more familiar of not just how we use it, but how it was... made to be used, I guess? Sorry if I sound too stupid. Just some quick thoughts.

cantueso said...

But keep in mind that the meaning of a word depends very much on who says it!
That is very important, especially of course when trying to figure out the "real" meaning of a word that conveys some sense of value like e.g. "cute" or "deep" or "romantic".
I live in Spain, learned to speak in Swiss German, had to learn English mainly from IHT. And well? Words of value cannot be translated!