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Static: Imprecise Language

Mark Twain famously wrote, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

That quotation came to mind the other day as I read a short article by Stephen Clay McGehee titled “Words Have Meaning” at The Southern Agrarian

McGehee noted how the term gentleman has been used so loosely, without any attention to its true meaning, that it hardly holds any meaning for many people today. The same is true for the term lady. (The greatest compliment anyone ever paid me was when a female coworker referred to me in a conversation with another person as “a true Southern gentleman,” meaning by the term’s original definition. I only hope I can live up to that standard!)

The same could be said of the misuse of many other terms. So many people speak and write words glibly and slovenly, with no regard for their true definitions, that those meanings have become blurred and fuzzy, and eventually they are altogether meaningless.

For example, people flippantly describe politicians’ actions as “Nazi” or “fascist” when neither the people being so described nor their actions remotely resemble those totalitarian positions. The terms are now merely emotion-laden buzz words that garner knee-jerk emotional responses among equally uninformed hearers or readers. Those who use such terms so glibly are either clueless as to their true meanings or purposely deceptive in their word choice.

Such imprecise use of words is another form of static that creeps into our writing. We must work to eradicate such static from our writing because just as ideas have consequences, words have meanings, and how they are used matters a great deal. Their use, too, has consequences, not all of them the ones we intend.

As writers, we must strive to be precise and accurate in the words we use, ensuring that we know the meaning of each word and select the best word for our intended message and target audience, not just the first ones that pop into our heads. And we must insist that others do so as well, calling them out when they reveal their ignorance by flippantly tossing about terms and using them incorrectly and deceitfully.

One characteristic of an advanced civilization is its possession of a precise language system. Conversely, one sign of a degenerating society is its misuse of its language. The consequences of a degenerating language are potentially far greater than the difference between the words in Twain’s lightning and lightning bug analogy.

Perhaps the best way to ensure that we writers do use words precisely is to invest in two books, a good dictionary and a good thesaurus, and then use them!

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