Josna Rege

126. Word Choice: Does it Matter?

In Education, Inter/Transnational, Stories, Words & phrases on October 29, 2011 at 1:30 pm

I caught an aisle seat on a plane, and drove an English teacher half insane
Making up jokes about bicycle spokes and red balloons
John Prine, Sweet Revenge

Perhaps I’m just a pedantic English teacher, but because words have always meant so much to me, it drives me insane when they are used sloppily (and I love John Prine because he uses them brilliantly). If words are not chosen with precision, then meaning, which is slippery at the best of times, is endangered altogether. And without being able to convey meaning through the uniquely human gift of speech, communication is eroded, threatening society itself. What I find these days—and if I sound old it’s probably because I am old—is that distinctions between words are falling away, so that a word that shares an approximate meaning with another comes to be used interchangeably with it,  more often than not with the user being completely unaware of the subtle difference between the two. Perhaps this is partly because students are using online thesauruses to find synonyms without being aware of the etymology and the genealogy of the word—of how its meaning and usage have changed over time, sometimes quite drastically and even in one lifetime. Perhaps part of the problem arises from the fact that very few dictionaries provide a history of a word’s changing meanings over time as the Oxford English Dictionary does. Or perhaps it’s just that people’s vocabularies are shrinking, so that they simply do not know several words for the same basic action, object, or quality with subtle and context-specific distinctions among them.

I was reminded afresh of this loss of distinction last week as one of my students used the word “stem” in an essay to refer to something arising or flowing from something else and indicating a causal relationship, as in, “his fear of ghosts stems from his childhood.” That would have been just fine, except that the student used it without the “from,” so that he unintentionally conveyed the opposite meaning, that of cutting off, as in, “he tried to stem the flow of blood from the wound” (although in the case of blood, the better verb would be to stanch).

Nowadays people often use words without being aware that quite frequently a slightly older but still current meaning may convey the very opposite of what they appear to mean, as in an “inflammable” object referring to one that is highly susceptible to combustion.

Last night as I lay in bed I found myself reflecting on subtle distinctions that I make between words, distinctions that I don’t think I was ever taught and have certainly never looked up, but that I have imbibed through a half a century of reading and conversation. In particular I thought of the differences in meaning, if any, between a decision, a choice, and a selection. I have deliberately refrained from looking up the definitions of these words in offering my own instinctive sense of their differences.

When I speak of making a decision, I am usually referring to a process, sometimes quite extended and extensive, that involves a deliberate weighing of a number of variables and reflecting on their various merits and demerits. A good example of such a decision would be a high school student’s decision as to which college to attend.

When it comes to making a choice, I think of a less weighty decision, such as the choice of what color of car to buy, what brand of dish detergent, or what flavor of ice-cream. It is more likely to be made quickly and to be based on personal taste rather than on a carefully considered set of pros and cons.

Finally, when I think of making a selection, I think of myself as a relatively passive consumer offered a limited array of choices—say, between item A, B, or C. I simply have to take what information I have been given about each and make a selection based on that information. The choice is not necessarily very free or very wide, and there has perhaps been a prior selection on the part of someone else, so that a larger set of choices has been narrowed down to this pre-packaged selection. So, for example, one might be offered three selections in a college meal plan or an organized package tour (none of which, incidentally, would necessarily be what one would have chosen if one had been given a free choice).

When I look up the distinctions between the above words, will I find that the meanings match my own usage? I don’t know. But I wonder how many young people nowadays (oh, the youth of today. . .) take the time or trouble to ponder or play with such distinctions? I mourn their loss, because it signifies a loss of the ability to convey—perhaps even to entertain—complex thoughts. And with an increasing inability to entertain complexity comes a concomitant inability to communicate and solve problems with our fellow-human beings in this bewilderingly complex world. Words matter.

Tell Me Another

  1. Interesting subject. I find myself quite irritated by some very common phrases in current use.For example; the response of “no problem” instead of “you are welcome” and “I’m good” instead of “No thank You”. I understand that it is a cultural and generational issue , but I cant help feeling that surrendering to such abuse of proper language is wrong and tend to take issue when it is used by people whom I know, I wonder how you, as a teacher , deal with similar irritations outside the classroom.
    Your post reminded me of a childhood experience.
    My father was from Lucknow and spoke high level Urdu.We spoke English at home and I grew up in English language boarding schools where I was also exposed to Bengali and Hindi. After we moved to East Pakistan (after Mount Hermon in 1957) I went to English boarding school in West Pakistan where the compulsory “national language” was Urdu a language I could speak only poorly. During winter holidays at home,my father engaged a Lucknowi Urdu tutor to bring me up to the required standards. I vividly remember his first words to me

    “The difference between Lucknow and Punjab is the difference between saying “Ji Han” or “Han Ji” ”

    This lesson has always made me mindful of the relationship between culture and language and that how we speak tells those who understand a lot about us.

    • I can imagine how difficult it must have been to be in West Pakistan at that time and age without having a strong command of Urdu. I haven’t heard Lakhnavi Urdu, but I have friends from UP who speak a very elegant Hindi. Though I speak horrible street Hindi, I know when someone speaks that language in such a way that it is music to my ears. I will never say “Han Ji” again!

  2. Oh Jojo,

    Pity the poor souls like myself that almost never can use the word selection or choice because we are doomed to make decisions on everything we need to consume or own.


    • So funny, Vincent, but painfully accurate, in my case at least! For instance, I’ve needed a new couch for more than a decade but the decision just seems overwhelming! Why can’t someone just give me a selection of three? Or better yet, a selection of one?

  3. Absolutely spot on! I mourn with you, and although I still try to correct my daughter’s speech, I am left to wonder what will become of the language and people’s ability to use it, in even my granddaughter’s lifetime.

    I happen to be one American who is proud of the fact that we finally elected an articulate and intelligent President to represent us around the world and yet I wonder how many of us he truly represents any more, as so many vocal people seem not to value his exceptional abilities to communicate and identify problems and offer solutions.

    Those who hunger for the power to rule and take away our choices and leave us with nothing but a few selections, are very aware of the power of words, yet the nightmarish future they have planned for us can only come to pass if the 99% of us allow ourselves to be fooled and lulled into believing in what they say.

    Keep teaching for all you are worth, Jojo. It’s the only way.

    • Marianne, your comment reminded me of Orwell’s discussion of Newspeak in Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which those in power sought to go on stripping down the language until it was no longer possible even to contemplate anything other than the status quo. And if people can’t imagine another reality, how can they ever hope to realize it?

  4. Wonderful piece today, Josna! I’ve given up on so many words — disinterested comes quickly to mind as an example of words that even well-educated people misuse. It’s sad, because it gives such a nice distinction between uninterest and disinterest, so it’s useful, but if people aren’t even understanding what I’m saying, well, it becomes not worth using the word at all. My parents grew up in Canadian schools and had a rather old-fashioned English education. They could be irritating sometimes, but I’m very grateful to them for their fostering in us an attention to grammar and a love of reading.

    I’ve missed reading your blog lately and have to catch up!

    • I too value “disinterested,” and don’t want it to be lost. So many people today seem to think that something is without value if it is not of personal interest to them. They need to be introduced to the notion that can be valuable not to have a personal stake in something and therefore being able to consider it without personal bias—disinterestedly. Perhaps I ought to drive my English students insane by putting a new pair of words on the board at the start of every class, explaining the distinction between them, and asking them to write sentences including each of them. I could start with uninterested and disinterested.
      I’ve missed your comments, too! So nice to read this one.

      • I’ve missed your blog, too! Nice to get back into the swing of things.

        I think your idea of putting up word pairs and teaching the distinction is an excellent idea! Who knows, they might even like it!

  5. Oh, and thank you for the photo of John Prine, one of my favorites!

    • The connection to the story was somewhat tenuous, Sarah, but any excuse to post a John Prine photo/song link! Someday I’d like to write a story about John Prine’s songs and what they mean to me—perhaps even that album in particular.

  6. Josna, I truly enjoyed this entry. I only stumbled on it by chance by choosing to surf for John Prine. I see the entry and comments are getting old, but I decided to respond. I could select from any number of foul plays of the English language which your entry brought to mind. I’ll keep it simply to one; I recently saw the word ‘barbarous’ in print. Now I won’t argue validity, it’s truly a word. But, really, barbarous? Isn’t ‘barbaric’, if only by sheer dint of common usage, a better choice as a neighboring adjective? Doesn’t ‘barbaric’ convey sufficient meaning, even the same meaning? Who made these two words interchangeable? It may not seem as silly as I see it to be until you try to do the same thing with other common words. But some might say that would be ridiculic 🙂
    I like words, and I like what you’ve done with them in this entry. If you like John Prine, and you enjoy reading, please check out a very nice selection of words I chose to decide upon in Argyle Gargoyles; A Darkly Humorous Novel at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Smashwords. It is also accessible from the main page of The John Prine Shrine, just halfway down on the right. Take care.

    • Thanks for your comment, Scott, and for letting me know about your book–very cool, Congrats! I went to the John Prine Shrine to check it out and will probably order it–the John Prine-approved lyrics quoted in it intrigue me. I hadn’t thought about barbarous/barbaric–you’re right, they’re pretty much interchangeable, like so many others–normalcy/normality comes to mind. It’s rather neat that we have so many synonyms in the English language–I don’t mind having more words to chose from at a time when people’s vocabularies are generally shrinking. Neologisms are cool, too; I like your ridiculic. How about John Prine’s “Exactlyodo, Quasimodo”? He has so much fun with words, as in Onomatopoeia, or It’s a Big Old Goofy World (or just about any song you could mention). All the best, fellow-John-Prine-lover.

      • Thanks for your response on this somewhat aging post, Josna. I’m doubly pleased to find you like to play with words and you’re also a John Prine fan. Nice to have affirmation that there are indeed real flesh and blood people behind the stark words we read on our computer screen. And yes, ‘Exactlyodo, Quasimodo’ is my favorite part of The Sins of Memphisto!
        Of course I’d be thrilled if you checked out my eBook. I’m just an eNeedle in a Haystack, but I do enjoy responses from people who let me know I’ve made them smile.

  7. […] 126. Word Choice: Does it Matter? […]

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