We have loads of books, references and on-line resources that provide the in’s and out’s of any given word. These provide you with the meaning, use, synonyms, antonyms, grammar, examples of use, idioms, slang, expressions and more for each word. With all of that at your disposition, it should be cut and dry for everyone. However, the same simple word, even in its most basic use, has very different meanings for each person and for a given situation.
Every word has an invisible relationship with each unique person. Grasping the meaning of a word is easier when it is accompanied by body language, voice intonation, gestures, facial expressions and the context of a situation. All of which come from personal exchanges. Even with personal exchanges and each persons invisible relationship with a word can lead to a lot of unexpected outcomes and often times unrecognized misunderstandings.
A friend of mine came over for dinner one night. While I was preparing dinner he was perusing my bookcases which are filled with a vast collection of books on nutrition, biology, holistic health, psychology, dreaming, hypnotherapy, spiritual practices and more. It was surprising because his lifestyle is everything but that of a healthy lifestyle. Everyone, including himself, knew that he lived second to second as the irresponsible spontaneous fun party guy who was struggling with addictions with alcohol, drugs, to junk food, TV, money and more.
Suddenly he chimed out, in exuberance “Now this is the book for me!”. Naively I immediately thought I had a book that would be the epiphany he needed for some long overdue lifestyle changes. I curiously asked “Which one?”. He held it up. It was “Drink your troubles away”. “Drink your troubles away” just happens to be my best and favorite 1967 edition book about vegetable and fruit juicing for health recovery. I understood instantly how he understood the title – drink your troubles away with alcohol. We both doubled over in laughter about the polarly opposite meaning and subject of the book. Even funnier, the authors name is LUST (John Lust). The incident was a good laugh, while also being a good reminder about how our use and understanding of words comes from our own personal unique points of reference and lifestyle.
Like everyone, you probably live in the illusion that everyone uses words in the same way. The reality is, that more often than not your use of words is different from everyone else’s – simply because you and your person are as unique as is your fingerprint.
Every one of your qualities makes you unique. Your heritage, mother-tongue language, gender, age, generation, geographic location, culture, upbringing, peers, education, personal interests, affiliations, personal/work/social experiences, life events and MORE. All of these are the direct link between you, every single word and how you use it.
How about an example? It is such a good example, in fact so much so that some may consider my choice to be a curse word that needs to be censored.
Smart ass is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary to be an adjective that means a “wise-guy” or “know-it-all”. Many word reference resources don’t even list it at all because it is considered for them a curse word. While other references consider it to be nothing more than a slang word.
“You are a smart ass” could be an endearing comment among close friends/family, a flirtatious come-on or a direct reprimand. A personal interaction is likely to give all the cues and indicators about how it is wanting to be understood. The truth of how it wants to be understood will be determined by cultural background, maternal-tongue languages, sarcastic intonation and by reading the social/body/facial cuing as well as understanding the contextual situation in which it is used.
For someone who uses “You are a smart ass” in writing (such as a text message or email) could be a bit toss up as to how it is wanting to be communicated, as well as how it will be received.
One person’s family may have used “smart ass” as a compliment to describe a person’s ability for fast come backs and a quick wit. While another family may have educated the word “smart ass” to be a highly negative personal quality.
Your personal word relationships come from early learning. Later learning evolves as a result of the environments you circulate in and the need to be accepted and belong. Variations such as different maternal language, cultural and other make the opportunity for misunderstandings that much greater.
I learned French in Paris at the age of 21. I was learning the words I needed to get by and have my needs met. After more than a year I was able to form a sentence, but holding a conversation was still very limited. Later I worked for Club Med and my French skills became more administratively oriented and I learned to get ideas across to other staff members who spoke the local French Creole, French Quebecois or speaking to others who spoke French as a second language. I realized how difficult and delicate it was to communicate simple instructions and be understood.
Later I married a Frenchman who didn’t speak English and my French skills took another deep turn. Learning a second language has many levels and layers. Work French is different from social French and love relationships require communication skills of yet another level. In each new French situation I was like a sponge. One day a dear friend was kind enough to share that my French was not fitting of a young American girl. I didn’t understand. She began to explain the expressions I used and their intensity meaning and contextual use. I was horrified. We both laughed because we knew that it was my living with my husband and his “firefighter” manly way of expressing himself that I had soaked up and was using.
Have you ever considered where you adopted your use of the words you use? Or how you may come across to others as a result of it? You can’t ever make a first impression a second time, what is your first impression to others telling them about you? Something to think about huh?
When I understood the invisible yet profound relationships I had with words I began to watch more closely. How was I using words? Why was I using them way? How was I understanding words? Over a short period of time I began to see that not only was I using the same word differently than others, but my relationship with a same word and how I used it was changing with each passing day and my life experiences.
In my 20’s and 30’s I used and understood the term “leisure activity” to mean an extreme sports outing. After my mid 30’s my life radically and dramatically changed as a result of an onslaught of serious medical problems. Soon after “leisure activity” was a simple quiet outing to peaceful and isolated natural setting on a park bench.
I could give you many more examples, but they would be my examples. While you will grasp my examples, you are more likely to understand what I am sharing if you see how your own use of words has changed over the years. All you have to do is play along. You read the question I ask and then you wait for your own truth to surface.
“Love” is a powerful word. “Love” means something different for each person. Its meaning and depth change as a person moves through life.
What did you love as a child?
How did you love it?
Go back to those times as a kid when you loved something (be it pizza, a toy, a pet or something else). What did love mean to you? And how did you experience love?
As you got older you certainly had a first “love” (or crush)?
What was it like?
How did your understanding of “love” change when you met that one special person (maybe the one you married)?
If you have children, how did your understanding of love change once you had a child enter your life?
Are you divorced? Have you been betrayed? Divorce and deep betrayal often and invariably influence a persons understanding of “love”. How did it change yours?
If you have been married for more than 20 years to the same person, how is your understanding and experience of “love” different now from when you first met them? In what ways is it different?
Has a cherished loved one crossed over?
How did that loss change your understanding of love? Did the loss change the way you express love?
A person who has been married for more than 40 years having a conversation with a teenager is like two people from different universes trying to find common ground. They both know the same words, but the words mean entirely different things to each of them based on their life experiences.
“Success” is another word that is ever changing for each person as they move through their lives.
Let’s take a look at your ideas of success and how they have changed over time. Take a deep breath. There are no wrong answers. The more honest your answer, the more this little exercise has to offer.
What signifies success for you right now?
Do you have a goal for success for your future?
For some, “success” maybe material (income, car, house, family, retirement fund or a trophy spouse). For another “success” may revolve around an event such as a big wedding, ceremony, awards or titles. Yet for others success is something that they feel and is materially invisible – such as happiness, peace of mind, joy in their hearts or healing relationships.
“Success” is also a concept very much embedded in your cultural origins. Success in India, Japan or South America is not necessarily the same as “success” for an American. Religion, gender, age, profession, social group and more will also influence how a person(s) sees and perceives success. For a country and culture where fruit is a luxury, success maybe as simple as being able to have a bowl of fresh fruit on the table!
What is important to you has to do with your ideas about “success”. What is important to you? How you prioritize your life also tells you what you beleive to be “success”.
What was important to you back 5 years ago?
What was important to you 10 years ago?
20 years ago?
As you look back you will see that what was important to you changed over time. Your idea of success changed as you either obtained your goals or as you saw what seeking that “goal” took away. How you understand “success” is also how you use and understand the word in your everyday conversations.
It is common to hear a man want riches and fortune. If he achieves the wealth he desires he may begin to see the areas of his life that are less “wealthy” such as emotional and mental well-being. As a person achieves their “success” they begin to see the areas of their lives that are coming up short. At times you may notice your idea of success costs too much. The young executive who wants the job title may begin to realize that his 60-70 hour work week prevents him from sharing his successes with a lover. As a result he may modify his idea of success to have a lower job title, fewer hours and a loving relationship.
Words have different meanings, but words also carry an EMOTIONAL charge. It is as if each word is more or less “heavy” emotionally. This too depends on the word and its relationship to a given persons life and experiences.
Consider the word “murder”. Murder holds a very different emotional charge for a parent whose child was murdered, than it does for a parent whose children are alive and safe. A murderer’s emotional connection to the word murder cannot be compared to someone whose relationship to the word murder is via video gaming, the evening news or media reports.
Emotionally laden words such as labels, are often those words we are reprimanded for saying and are taught not to say. Curse words or racial and religious terms are among them.
Words that don’t require censoring and are in no way hurtful also carry a huge emotional charge, even violent emotional charges. Take sports team names for example. One day I bought a baseball hat with a big red B on it. I needed something simple and casual to keep my face and eyes shielded from the sun’s glare without flying off in high winds. As a girl, my choice was based solely on the color, soft material, proper fit, look and machine washability. The B could have stood for Boy for all I knew since I was in the boys department when I bought it. The first few times I wore it out to keep my eyes and face out of the sun on windy days I was invariably met by honking, screaming, defamatory or cheering from total strangers. I was invariably confused on each occasion. I would look around to see what was causing the uncontrollable emotional outbursts. Would see absolutely nothing and then wonder what on earth I had just done. Several minutes later I would realize it was the B on my baseball hat that was causing the uproar. It was absolutely incredible what the “B” on my baseball hat caused when I wore it in public. It caused such a ruckus that eventually I donated it to goodwill opting for a neutral plain wrap hat that didn’t cause a single emotional peep from anyone.
Before learning French, I never thought about what I was literally communicating in my mother-tongue language. I knew instinctively without knowing why, what I was supposed to say and do based on a situation, surroundings and my role in any given situation. I had been programmed and was basically on automatic pilot without any real consciousness of what I was doing. It remained that way until I moved to France at 21 when I had to think about every single thing I said, did and was communicating via my expressions, body language, voice and words.
As I learned French, culture and customs I began to have a different perspective from which to see my own mother-tongue English. At times I would find myself needing to express an idea in French, but not knowing the words. I would do a mind word translation search and invariably be thinking “omg that is crazy what we say in English – I can’t translate that in French, it is thoroughly ridiculous and meaningless!”. My first experience was the day I had to tell someone that my cat was “fixed”. In French, saying my cat was “fixed” implied that my cat was broken. What an irony. Look at English for a moment. My cat went to the vet perfect and whole. The vet altered or removed its reproductive organs and then gave the animal back to me “fixed”. Try and explain that English use of words to a foreigner.
Expressions and idioms are a verbal visual bonus feature that offer laughs and a lot of misunderstandings. Arriving at work one day I heard someone say “Elle pete le feu”. I heard, but did I hear right? I didn’t understand so my mind began the translational word search. I repeated in my head “elle…. pete… le… feu…” Did I translate that right? Did they just say she was farting fire? In an effort to understand my mind gave me an image of a lady farting fire to which I was doubled over in laughter. When my laughter calmed I asked what on earth it meant. I knew they would not be telling me about this girls gastro-intestinal upsets and if she was farting fire I probably needed to be on the look-out. What I came to understand was that “She is farting fire” is equivalent to “she is on fire”. Our English equivalent “she is on fire” would invariably lead someone with a different maternal language to a totally different and horrific understanding and visual image.
We so falsely assume that we all use words the same way and that a same word has the same meaning for everyone. Not only do we use words differently, but every single day’s life experiences give us new relationships with each word we use. Understanding the concept “Same Word, Many meanings” can encourage you to ask more questions, make fewer assumptions and to take more time and caring for conversations.
Even though my article’s words are the same for every single reader, these words will impact and reach each person entirely differently. Words are very powerful, but they are also effectively ineffective communicators. Words are important, magical and abstract, but they are complex vehicles. When you see both the advantages and the shortcoming of words, you are best equipped to use them for maximizing best outcomes.