Word on the Street

Personal essays from a young journalist in the Sunshine State.

Tag: Words and language

How Words Shape the Way We Experience the World

I’ve always considered words to be beautiful — the way they’re used, the way they sound and the way they can be used to shape our experience of the world around us.

I started thinking about this more after reading a brief in Tuesday’s St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times mentioning a Mississippi State University survey that looked at which words were “pretty” and which ones were “ugly.”

The Times reported:

“When classics professor Robert Wolverton asked students in his annual survey to list beautiful and ugly words, “eloquent” was a favorable choice for six of the 75 students that responded. A total of 148 words were deemed beautiful, including love” (for votes), “symphony” (four) and, strangely enough, “beautiful” (three votes). “Vomit” got six votes for ugly, followed by “puke” (five), “moist” (five), “ugly” (four, possible some of the same people who said “beautiful” was beautiful.)

The survey results reminded me of a recent National Public Radio story about the words people use to describe the word “bridge.” When Germans hear the word “bridge” — or die brucke — they’re likely to associate it with words such as “elegant,” “slender” and “peaceful” because of its feminine association. Hispanics, on the other hand, hear the word “bridge” — or el puente — and are likely to think of more masculine words such as “strong,” “dangerous” and “sturdy.” In short, we characterize nouns based on their grammatical gender.

NPR reported:

… the grammar we learn from our parents, whether we realize it or not, affects our sensual experience of the world. Spaniards and Germans can see the same things, wear the same cloths, eat the same foods and use the same machines. But deep down, they are having very different feelings about the world about them.

In reading that passage, I can’t help but wonder if native English speakers would have a more sensual experience of the world if our language feminized and masculinized words. Would we perceive places and things differently if we could more easily conjure up a variety of words to explain what we see? Would it be easier for us to detect beauty and ugliness in a befuddling world?

It’s a lot easier to think that a word sounds beautiful or ugly, or masculine or feminine, if you know the meaning of the word. I read a while ago, for instance, that said non-English speakers surveyed found “diarrhea” to be one of the most beautiful words in the English language. It makes sense when you think about it; the word sounds euphonious if we disregard what “diarrhea” actually looks like and means. “Syphillis” is another word that I’ve always thought sounded pretty despite its ugly definition.

Some other words I find beautiful are: “autumn,” “blossom,” “calm,” “embrace,” “gladiola,” “melody” and “mother.” These words make me happy, and make me think positive thoughts when I hear calming melodies, see gladiolas blossoming or feel a mom’s embrace.

Maybe my experience with these words adds to the beauty of the way they sound rather than the other way around. Or maybe I’m just too much of a word geek …

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Making Up for a Loss for Words

Sometimes, the words we want to use to articulate a particular moment elude us. Other times, the right word is outside of our commonly-used vocabulary — or it just doesn’t exist. While at the Nieman narrative journalism conference in Boston earlier this year, for instance, I was talking with a Boston Globe reporter who said, “I wish there were a word for the moment in a movie when you hear the movie’s title and learn what it means. Maybe there is a word for this, but if there is, I don’t know it.”

Another example comes from Jodi Picoult’s book, “My Sister’s Keeper.” In the book, just after one of the main characters named Sara has lost her child, she says: “In the English language there are orphans and widows, but there is no word for the parent who loses a child.” That sentence stuck with me. Why isn’t there a word for a parent who loses a child?

As a child, I used to come up with neologisms all the time. One of my favorites, which I still use to this day is “Refwingem.” These are plastic discs that I used to paint with glitter glue and sell at my lemonade stands. My friends got a kick out of my childhood stories about Refwingems — so much so that they all wanted me to make them one. (Mind you, there were 10 of us in my group of college friends. That’s a lot of Refwingems!)

Sophomore year, we dubbed our room “Room Refwingem,” which was across the hall from our other friends’ room, “Giddyup 409.” (The room number was 409 and my friends like the Beatles.) I’ve even made Refwingems for colleagues at work. I don’t know what made me want to call the glittery discs “Refwingems,” but it’s fun to say and it’s part of my special lexicon among friends.

Last year, my colleague/mentor Roy Peter Clark wrote a column about neologisms and developing a special lexicon for your readers. It’s well worth a read.

What words do you want to invent if you haven’t already?

Dude, What Does ‘Dude’ Mean?

I often think about words and how they relate to the way we express ourselves. Sometimes, we’re at a loss for words, either because we can’t find the words to articulate what we mean or because the word just doesn’t exist. Other times, we say a word but don’t really know what it means.

I’m thinking in particular of the word “dude.” Some of my guy friends use this word all the time. “Dude, I can’t believe that happened! That’s crazy, dude. Listen, dude, just go with the flow.” Movie titles like “Dude, Where’s My Car?” and the Bud Light “Dude” commercial also come to mind.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary says the word “dude” dates back to 1883 and means a man extremely fastidious in dress and manner” or “a city dweller unfamiliar with life on the range.” We know the word today for its less formal usage.

The New York Times recently wrote a piece about the word “dude,” saying:

What’s a familiar four-letter word that can mean almost anything, depending on the context in which it is spoken and the inflection of the speaker? Dude!

In a series of television commercials for Bud Light, in which the word dude, used repeatedly, is the only line of dialogue, the term is shown to have a seemingly limitless number of translations. In the right circumstances dude can be a stern admonition to a co-worker ( “Please stop tapping that pencil on your desk”), an entreaty to a teammate (“Pass me the basketball!”) or a subtle nudge to a friend (“Check out the scantily clad showgirls on that escalator”).

In reading this description, I was struck by how masculine the word “dude” seems. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say, “dudette!” even when guys are talking about, or to, girls. In much the same way, other expressions such as “You guys,” or, “I don’t mean to be the bad guy here, but …” carry masculine undertones. Dude, what’s up with that?

What are some other examples of words/expressions that people use a lot but that are difficult to define?