Words and Meanings

We all know how  many of words can change. For instance, the word “gay”. Until the latter part of the 20th Century, it meant joyful, giddy, extremely happy. Now, perhaps rightly so, it refers to happy homosexual men.

Likewise, look at the word “cool”. Musicians were using that as early as the first decade of the 20th Century. It meant something like “fantastic” or “wonderful” or “outstanding” or all of these meanings plus “unique.” However, look at is replacements. First it was “sick” and now it’s “dope”. In my opinion, neither of those are as cool as COOL. Maybe someday we’ll use “green”, first introduced to us by Ruby Rod in “The Fifth Element”. Now that was a cool movie.

Another change in meaning is “Divine Service”. Nineteenth Century religions writer Mary Baker Eddy once wrote “It is sad that the phrase ‘Divine Service’ has come so generally to mean public worship instead of daily deeds.” She referred to good deeds, of course. She was aware of how religions were co-opted by selfish thought instead of focusing on how they could do good through acts of kindness, love, forgiveness, generosity, and inclusiveness.

Words have meanings. I have mentioned that before. A science fiction story written in either the 1930s or 1940s envisioned people living in the 21st Century in “condoms” rather than “condos.” How unfortunate for that writer.

Similarly, in a science fiction novel I wrote, “Sky Knights”, about fighter pilots hundreds of years from now, my pilots used the word “vape” in reference to vaporizing the enemy plasma weapons. Often they’d say “vape you” rather than “fuck you”. Now vaping has a whole different meaning.


So, if you’re thinking of creating new words, like Shakespeare did, or giving new meanings to current words, watch out. Somebody else might come along and co-opt your words into entirely different meanings. At best, people will just laugh at you and at worst, hate you.

Almost everyone knows the cliche, “Like a bump on a log,” referring to inflexible thought or unwillingness to change. I once tried to come up with a new phrase while talking to some people. I said, “You’re like little sticky brown balls of mud on the bottom of a river, unable or unwilling to move with the current.”

What was the reaction of my audience? White people and black people alike began screaming at me, calling me a racist. Apparently, all they heard was the phrase “brown balls”. It got them moving, united even. But they were moving after me. Some of them even wanted to sue me. And one woman got me kicked out of the Society I was in. And all because I dared to be different. I shouldn’t have used the word “brown”. But as a writer, I wanted to be descriptive for clarity’s sake.

The lesson I learned from this? You never know how people are going to react, so be careful what you write or say.

See you out there.


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