Wednesday, March 09, 2011

What does it mean?

English is a rich language with an enormous vocabulary of words borrowed from other languages that bring to it shades of meaning you just can’t get in most other tongues.

That richness puts a lot of tools into our linguistic toolbox, but like any toolbox, you can’t get a good result if you reach blindly and grab the first thing that comes to hand.

As Mark Twain said, the difference between the almost-right word and the right word is the difference between a lightning bug and lightning.

And when a wrong word shows up, it can be startling and jarring.

A woman whose blog I visit has just such a problem with the word banal. When she and her friends get together for friendly socializing, she calls it “banal discourse.”

Here’s what has to say about the word:


banal pronunciation /bəˈnæl, -ˈnɑl, ˈbeɪnl/ Show Spelled[buh-nal, -nahl, beyn-l] Show IPA


devoid of freshness or originality; hackneyed; trite: a banal and sophomoric treatment of courage on the frontier.

Judging from the context, I really doubt she means to be so insulting to her friends and herself.

The editor of my college newspaper somehow got the idea that the word dildo meant a silly or dim-witted person. She was horribly embarrassed when she learned that a dildo is an artificial erect penis. Fortunately, she never used the word in an editorial.

There’s a short copy editor’s prayer that goes, “Lord, save us from the things we think we know.”

If you’re even a little unsure about what a word means, look it up and save yourself some embarrassment.

Don’t be a dildo.

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