Shakespeare, Seuss & Austen: the meaning of words


“I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” That’s a line of the Nicene Creed that I did not recite for years as a teen, because I did not understand what certain words meant. I thought I understood, but I was wrong on two counts. The first was “catholic” and the second was “Church.”

With regard to “Church,” I reasoned that, when I went to Mass at another church while visiting relatives or somewhere else, I didn’t transfer my belief from my home parish to the church of that parish. What was preached at my parish church wasn’t superior to what was preached at another parish church, right? I later learned that “Church” referred to the Christian faith in which I’d been raised, not a specific building. At that time, I didn’t even consider the importance of “Church” being capitalized.

With regard to “catholic”—again, I missed the cue indicated by capitalization or the lack thereof—I confused that word with one specific denomination, the Roman Catholic Church. I disliked the inference that every other Christian denomination was inherently wrong, bad, or evil, because I had friends of varying faith traditions, and they weren’t wrong, bad, or evil simply because they didn’t adhere to the same beliefs I did. (In this paragraph, it’s important to understand the subtle difference between implication and inference.) As used in the Nicene Creed, “catholic” means “universal” and does not refer to the Roman Catholic denomination specifically.

I did not attend parochial school, which might have made a difference and cleared my confusion earlier. I went to public school and attended weekly CCD classes. (At that time, CCD meant Catechism of Christian Doctrine and now stands for Confraternity of Christian Doctrine.) The meaning behind the words of the various prayers recited during Mass and which were deemed important for us to memorize was never discussed, at least not that I remember. I have to admit that, like my CCD classmates, I resented those classes and probably wouldn’t have been receptive to any scholarly dissection of meaning during those years. In short, any such effort would have been wasted.

This relates a bit to that famous line in William Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy, Romeo and Juliet: “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” This actually implies the exact opposite of my youthful confusion in that whatever word is used to identify it, a rose’s nature does not change. It is still a rose. And this also relates to the elephant, Horton, in Dr. Seuss’ story Horton Hears a Who!: “I meant what I said and I said what I meant.” Horton abhors ambiguity, innuendo, and allusion: he means what he says to avoid confusion and misunderstanding no matter how others, willfully or not, interpret his words.

My familiarity with languages other than English is pretty much nonexistent, but anyone who’s fluent in English knows that context, nuance, and usage affect what words mean. The evolution of language does, too. As a language, English is notorious for adopting the words of other languages and coining new words into its vast lexicon. One example: vamoose in U.S. English arose from the Spanishvamos which means “we go” or “we are going.” (Etymology is fascinating!)

I bring this up because a wide vocabularly not only aids in understanding what words mean, but it also aids in understanding lots of words. We use words to define other words. That comprehension serves as an asset to both writers and editors: What do I want to say and how do I best say it? In other words, what is the most effective way to say something? If innuendo or nuance is meant to create double meanings and possible confusion, then a wide vocabulary works well applied so, too. A good writer know what he or she wants to say and writes to express that. A great writer wields language with the precision of a knife or with the broad sweep of a magic wand as intended. Intent makes as much difference and has as much impact as do skill and knowledge.

One of the best examples regarding the wielding of language with utmost precision while using the flexibility of nuance and context is Lady Susan by Jane Austen. I became familiar with the novella by way of Netflix. The movie is titled Love & Friendship, a rather anemic name for such a stellar example of linguistic precision. I love her facile explanation of her avoidance of paying her companion, because the indelicate discussion of wages would embarrass them both.

When submitting a manuscript to the editor, it behooves the writer to pay special attention to the editor’s margin comments inquiring as to meaning. Although the editor does (a lot) more than read the manuscript, part of the editor’s job is to assume the role of reader. Most readers don’t or won’t spend a lot of time parsing the vocabulary the author uses; therefore, that vocabulary must be wielded with skill and accuracy. Confusion on the editor’s part more than likely means confusion on the reader’s. And no author wants that.

#hollybargobooks #henhousepublishing #vocabulary

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