Thursday, February 2, 2012

Words That Please, Words That Grind

No matter what it is that I'm up to, words are my stock in trade. This is true whether I'm on the clock or on my own, tapping away at a draft while trying to ignore the siren songs of video games or the internet. As a result words are usually on my mind, and when they're in the air it's easy to hear them screech and whine like rusty hinges if they're the wrong word for the wrong place.

Sometimes, though, it's the inappropriate word instead, and that's a lot more personal. When it comes to the wrong word, generally speaking it's objectively wrong - see Mark Twain's comment on the right word vs. the almost right word, lightning vs. the lightning bug. Whether or not something's appropriate for the situation is far more subjective, which means someone like me who is annoyed by certain words will encounter that just as often, if not more so, than incorrect usages because no one ever told the writer "this is not the way you write" - because, really, when it comes to words that are merely matters of opinion there's no organization that has the authority to say that but the writer.

Case in point, the word that started me down this road: "delighted." Objectively there's nothing wrong with this word, but subjectively it seems a bit outdated and antediluvian to me. Certainly it's a word that I feel like should be used in relatively limited contexts. When I think of the appropriate context for "delight," the first thing to come to mind is the attitude of a child tearing open gifts on Christmas morning. In my mind it's got too much weight, too much traditional freight to apply accurately to things like customer interactions; in those circumstances, my thinking is that "our customers will be pleased with X" does the job. To say that "our customers will be delighted with X" suggests, to me, that the customers have far too much of their sense of self-worth bound up with what they're buying.

Some of this is just down to linguistic evolution. That, I think, is the case with "silly" - a word that rises my hackles now whenever I come across it and I don't consciously know why, it just looks and sounds deeply, deeply immature to me. I come across it in older stories all the time, written up until the 1970s or thereabouts, used in contexts where a modern author would probably just use "stupid" instead. ("Don't be silly, they couldn't hit the broad side of a barn from this dis--") Today the word just grinds, feels childish and jarring when used outside of a specifically childish medium, the same way that it would be jarring if Captain Kirk complained to Dr. McCoy of a "tummyache." Unlike the example of "delight," though, it seems that "silly" keeps to a far smaller sphere of use today than it did fifty years ago.

When it comes to older works, this is something that can't really be avoided - I've got no way of knowing what words will change and shift in definition as the years go on, no one does. Likewise, people are not going to stop using words like "delight" until they gradually get pigeonholed. It's all part of the evolution of language... I just never thought about how evolution in action could be so annoying at times.

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