Writing Non-Fiction posted November 26, 2013

This work has reached the exceptional level
Do you know what you're really saying? Do I?

Say What?

by Fleedleflump

I was struck by some words recently (I mean a thought occurred to me when I read them - they didn't physically assault me) in a very dull document that crossed my desk at work. It was a contingency strategy plan and made frequent use of 'planning for an emergency' - a phrase that stuck in my head and took my thoughts on a winding tangent.

My problem resides in the word 'emergency.' You see, I have a habit of deconstructing words and looking at what they REALLY mean, based on their components, as opposed to what we USE them to mean. An emergency, logic would suggest, is an emergent situation - something that arises of its own accord by virtue of specific, unexpected combinations of factors. Indeed, in the world of computer game development, 'emergent gameplay' is something of a holy grail - the glorious moment when the rules of a game world allow players to experience their own, unique stories. You can respond to an emergency, and you'll inevitably react to it ...

But you can't plan for it. That would be, to paraphrase a classic, 'expecting the unexpected' - a knowing oxymoron.

This article, though, isn't about emergencies. It's about usage of English. You see, there's fun to be had once you start this particular ball rolling. For our specific strain of geek (what I like to call the 'word nerd' - yes, I'm speaking to you, fellow pensmiths), there's a plethora of misuse to sneer at/be sarcastic about/enjoy (the last is the best way to go - trust me).

A friend told me the other day he was 'literally' going out of his mind. Quite a statement, really. I asked him if he meant literally, articulately, or metaphorically. He meant the last, of course - the opposite of what he said, but that's another growing trend. I cringe every time I hear a character on TV or film proclaim 'I could care less' when they mean the exact opposite.

Want to hear another one? The word 'awful,' and its brother 'awesome.' Much like flavourful and flavoursome, they mean the same thing - just to different degrees of amplitude - but think about the vast gulf between their modern meanings. Something may cause some awe, another will fill us with it, but we've polarised the two terms on opposite sides of the hyperbolic fence.

I'm not here to complain or criticize - rather, to encourage. Keep an eye out next time you're reading something and see if you can divine the fund-a-mental (couldn't resist) meanings of some words and phrases. At worst, it'll give you some entertainment, and at best it'll enrich your understanding of this bonkers language we're writing in.

I'll leave you with another. I was reading a story about an alcoholic and the writer described them as being surrounded by 'empty bottles of wine.' Now, call me pedantic if you wish, but surely if the bottle's empty, it's no longer a bottle of wine ...

Have fun, my fellow scribblers, and please let me know your own bugbears and favourite common misusages/oxymorons/idiotic phrases. Who knows, there might be a novelty stocking-filler book in there somewhere!

Non-Fiction Writing Contest contest entry


All in the spirit of fun - let me know your own experiences!

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