Or, Primary Definitions in Individual Lexicons of English
I had an interesting exchange about word meaning recently. Well. Let me rephrase; I had a rather boring exchange about word meaning that led me to an interesting point of contemplation.
After the contretemps of That Review Which Will Not Be Named, I saw in my blog stats that Thursday (the day the review posted) was my second-busiest day ever–second only to the day two traditionally published romance authors mentioned via Twitter one of my posts. Feeling like I needed to make something positive out of the situation, I pointed out my increased traffic. I used the word “furor” in my tweet to describe the flurry of comments on the review, and the reviewer responded with something like “was there furor?”
I read that, I think correctly, as her wondering if in fact I had been outraged over the review and just hid it well. That that interpretation of my words was her first reaction made me question my usage. I immediately checked Dictionary.com, but it reassured me that I understood the word correctly to be enthusiasm, energy, hectic events, etc. It also can, apparently, be used to mean outrage, anger, frustration, etc. My usage was the first (primary) definition; hers was the third definition. I sent her the link and “see #1,” and all was well.
It got me thinking, though: how much do our own individual word definitions or associations influence what we read? The possibility does not occur in person-to-person conversation, because there is tone and expression to offer context. When I say “furor” with a laugh in my voice, the way I speak tells my listener I didn’t mean outrage. But in writing? All a reader has is the words on the page, as they are presented, and sometimes context is not enough to illuminate the author’s meaning. In the case I am describing, the misreading occured because the word has more than one accepted (and fairly commonly understood) definition, and either could make sense in the context.
More insidious a problem than that, however, is what writers should do with the words it does not occur to us that someone might have a different “first definition” for? I am not sure where I learned “furor,” for example, Jane Austen or Shakespeare or Georgette Heyer. Regardless of its origin for me, it has never been a word I associate strongly with its lexicographic cousin, “fury.”
Thus, the crux of my conundrum.
I mean, if I understand that I am using a non-standard definition of a word, or that it is a word I recognize as having several meanings, I can add cues in the sentence to make my usage unambiguous. But how am I supposed to anticipate the confusion engendered by someone else’s idea of that word, when I’m not consciously aware of the definition they go to first?
Clearly, the pitfalls that trap us are the ones we don’t even realize are there.