The Many Meanings of Words

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I spent my college years analyzing words, what they mean in different contexts, how stringing them together creates new meanings. I studied literature from different languages and cultures and learned that a simple concept like snow might have hundreds of different descriptors. I literally decomposed sentences breaking them down into their most basic parts. I demonstrated that linguistically the same language may sound very different and still be valid and bound by rules. Words are powerful but so often the meaning that we intend them to have is lost in translations colored by perceptions and experiences. We find ourselves proclaiming like J. Alfred Prufrock, “That is not what I meant at all!”

Authors often laugh at the misinterpretations of their writing. As humans we sometimes associate meanings and feelings to both the written and spoken words that are more likely to represent ourselves than the person who first uttered the phrases on paper or in person. Our understanding of what we think we see or hear can vary widely from the same set of words. We bring a lifetime of personal observations to every conversation or reading and overlay our own thinking on the thoughts of others. 

I often think back to a Shakespeare class that I took while studying at the university. We were having a lively discussion of Romeo and Juliet that twisted and turned as different students revealed their interpretations of what they believed the story was really meant to convey. The theories were so wild that I wondered if I had actually read the same play as some of my peers. The differing viewpoints made me realize how many layers of significance the same words may convey. 

I find that we are more and more at odds with one another as the opportunities for communication grow. The confined spaces of a tweet or a Facebook or Instagram post force us to explain our thinking in minimalist fashion. We leave out so much of what is actually on our minds that those reading our comments are in a sense forced to interpret what we are actually attempting to say. They respond according to their own worldview and often send the discussion in a direction that was never intended and making false assumptions about the person who originated the statement. Sides are taken in arguments that should never have happened. Friendships are tarnished. We try to explain and with each word seem to be digging deeper and deeper holes. It is as though we are in some nightmare version of the Tower of Babel where everyone is talking but nobody understands what is being said. 

So many people feel silenced these days. They are reluctant to say anything lest their commentaries be grossly misinterpreted. Even the most innocent sounding sentences can lead to angry retorts and so we drawn back inside ourselves and only speak to those whom we most trust, the people who have been loyal to us over the years. Sometimes a single expression of frustration can even tip the scales of friendships that we thought to be solid. Our attempts to mend the confusion and set things straight are not enough to take away hurts that were never intended. Words can purposely kill but they can also do so without intent. 

One of the best pieces of advice I have ever heard is to react to what we hear and read by assuming the best. When words appear to be angry or hurtful or insulting first find out exactly what the person was trying to say. Learn about the context that prompted an individual to say something that seems egregious. Instead of arguing or debating attempt to discern what is behind a person’s words. Clarify misunderstandings rather than making assumptions. Read and listen critically rather than combatively. 

I write every single day and then I make my words public. I have touched people’s hearts and with the very same words made some so angry with me that they have severed our relationships. I try to be honest and open and to admit that neither I nor anyone else has all the answers to life’s challenges. I simply observe that most of us are trying very hard to be good people, to do the right thing. Sometimes we falter. Sometimes our flaws overcome us. Sometimes we become so buried in our emotions that we are no longer able to see clearly. In those moments if we are fortunate those around us will be forgiving and understanding. They will overlook our weaknesses and seek to understand who we are and what we are trying to say rather than turning their backs on us in anger if we sound rude or hateful. They will assume the best just as we all should attempt to do. 

Each time I post a blog I know that someone will see something in my words that I never even thought to imply. When I write a comment on Facebook I may unintentionally hurt someone. It is the way of words. Only when someone continually hurts with words can we deduce that they meant to do so. Only when someone constantly lies can we assume that they are not worthy of our trust. In most cases if someone’s words surprise us it is because we have misunderstood what they were attempting to convey. In those times our goal should be to set the record straight by learning the truth of the situation. We can do that as long as we understand the complexity of words and how easy it is to misconstrue them.