Mark Twain understood the importance of words. He said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” The nuances between some words makes this particularly significant. Understanding words facilitates meaning.
Think about the words for funny. We speak of jokes that are humorous, amusing, and laughable, but we can move to the really funny with riotous, sidesplitting, and hilarious. Some people might even say something was a scream, it killed me, and I fell over laughing. The right word depends of one’s sense of humor and the context of the joke.
The derivation of hilarious comes from the Greek word hilaros and the Latin word hilaro. In those languages the meaning can mean simply cheerful and even gracious. In the New Testament in 2 Corinthians 9:7, the writer uses the Greek version of this word to describe a cheerful giver rather than one who gives out of compulsion. The derivation seems to refer to someone with a lighthearted disposition. English has used the same idea and has intensified it to mean very funny.
Meaning or Meaningless
People might argue today that words can have whatever meaning we want for them. This might be true to some extent. However, there is usually something more going on with language. Words may evolve as we’ve seen above, but words don’t change the reality of what is being described.
Abraham Lincoln once asked an audience how many legs a dog has if you count the tail as a leg. When they answered “five,” Lincoln told them that the answer was four. “The fact that you called the tail a leg does not make it a leg.” Lincoln astutely observed that calling something by a different name does not determine the nature of what it is. The legs and the tail of the dog have functions that transcend the words we attach to them. Were we to switch the words for leg and tail, we still have to define them by the nature and function of those parts of a dog’s anatomy.
Words must also share meaning, otherwise we fail to communicate. As Twain observed, specific words clarify the meaning intended. Next time you are speaking or writing, think about the words you use. If you are trying to communicate a serious topic, but your audience says, “That guy’s a real hoot,” then you know you’ve either done something wrong or you’ve misunderstood the nature of your audience. Assuming, of course, you know what a hoot is.
© 2023 Robert T. Weber and Words Done Right LLC