When it comes to the meaning behind the words, it’s all personal

Language relies on a shared definition of common terms—but what happens when our definitions are out of sync with colleagues, friends and loved ones?

Have you ever been troubled by a word? Not a curse word or an offensive term, but an ordinary, everyday word?

Maybe it’s a word that an ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend used that drove you crazy, or maybe it’s a word that everyone uses to sound smart. Or, a word that someone once used to deliberately anger you.

Whatever the reason—you hear the word and you’re immediately on edge.

The word currently preying on my mind is “antique.” It sounds absurd—but I can explain.

When I see or hear “antique,” it takes me back to the week my sister and I moved our mom out of her house. She was moving to a much smaller place, the movers were due in three days, and every time we suggested she throw something away, she would accuse us of not caring about memories, not caring about her, and disrespecting our grandmother: “I’m just glad she’s not alive to see how the two of you are acting right now.”

When she realized we were immune to these personal attacks, she started assigning random value to the items we were asking her to toss.

“But it’s an antique.”

“Your Aunt Linda said that was an antique.”

“You can’t find stuff like this anymore. It’s a real antique.”

But what did she mean by “antique?” Is this basket of old potpourri valuable because it’s old? Because potpourri is hard to find? Is it sentimentally valuable because of who it once belonged to? Could we sell it for money? Or did she simply want to hang on to it because, like many of her generation, she’s incapable of throwing anything away?

Clearly, I was not understanding her meaning of the word “antique.”

“In the ‘classical’ sense, an antique is something that is at least 100 years old,” explains Carl McQueary, cultural historian, archivist, and owner of Estate Services of Austin. For McQueary, antiques and the people who no longer want to hold on to them are his business.

“But, these days an antique can be anything defined by its advanced age or some people consider antiques to be anything that existed before they did,” he said. “The definition has changed because the generation that cared about classifying these things is largely gone.

Now, an object’s value is perceived as what you can get for it.”

So, the basket of old potpourri that my mom insisted on keeping is not an antique?

“Probably not. But your mom is using the word to signify something that is valuable to her,” McQueary said.

Clearly, I was not listening. I was so intent on arguing about the definition of “antique” that I missed what my mom was trying to tell me: Stop asking me to through away my “antiques.”

As writers and editors, how often do we prioritize the mechanics of words (denotation) and miss their intent (connotation)? What are the people around you trying to tell you with their word choice?

Should we dig a little deeper before we hit “delete”?

What do you think Ragan readers?

COMMENT

One Response to “When it comes to the meaning behind the words, it’s all personal”

    Deb Kazenelson Deane says:

    I’ve spent my career coaching individuals to prepare them for media interviews, presentations and other milestone events – in two different languages and one of the most important things I’ve learned is that words have meaning beyond those defined in a dictionary. Our experiences, cultural references, language and even understanding of history factor in to the words we invoke when communicating – as do our other senses. Are we visual thinkers? Linear? Analytical? Conceptual? The infinite ways our minds work and receive information impact the meaning of the words we choose when we communicate. I have found that the great equalizer is asking people to explain – “why” – why does what they are saying or feeling matter. To them, to others. That’s a very helpful way to force a definition.

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