You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. ~Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride
A few days ago, I received a message in my inbox with the subject line “Discount Fiber Newsletter.” I freaked out because I’m about to turn forty-three and for the love of Pete, I’m already getting geriatric spam! It turned out to be about fiber optic cables, but it got me thinking about how easy it is to misinterpret the meaning of a word or sentence, especially without context.
Of course, part of the blame lies with the complexity of the English language. I do not envy non-native speakers trying to learn the language. Homonyms (a word that is spelled and pronounced like another word but is different in meaning) can be confusing even for native speakers. How many of us can honestly say we’ve never mixed up hear/here, lead/led or affect/effect, to name a few?
And how about idioms, which are expressions that cannot be understood from the meanings of their separate words, but have a different meaning of their own. One of my favorites is Wag the Dog, which means a diversion away from something of greater importance. But does everyone know that? It’s certainly not a literal translation.
To use some examples from literature, let’s talk about Shakespeare’s “star-crossed lovers,” Romeo and Juliet. Unfortunately, star-crossed doesn’t mean, as most people think, that they’re fated to be together. It means that they are fated to die because the stars have “crossed” them. I’ve seen that one misused so many times I’ve lost count. And what about one of the most famous lines from Romeo and Juliet, “Wherefore art thou, Romeo?” It doesn’t mean where are you, Romeo, because he is standing right in front of Juliet when she says it. Wherefore means “why.” Juliet is asking why Romeo has to be a Montague.
So what does all of this mean for writers? Not only do we have to make every word count, but we also have to make sure that when we put the words together on the page, their meaning is clear to our readers.
Have you ever read something in a book that might not have meant what the author intended?
ROMANTIC PURSUIT QUESTION:
Who plays Charlotte in the book trailer for my debut release, Just a Kiss? Be sure to post your answer on the form on the home page!