April 16, 2012

you say potato

Words and phrases have set meanings. Sometimes one word easily be swapped for another using a thesaurus and no one notices. In others, a word's connotation is so important using one over the other changes everything. It comes down to semantics.

Andrew, my clever and brilliant reporter friend, puts it well: "You say potato. I say vodka."

We all get caught up with semantics. Promises are made and broken, wars are started and ended, and lives are changed based on a person's word choice. As a writer, it is our job to pick the appropriate words to tell a story. One word can change everything.

I read E.L. James' Fifty Shades trilogy this weekend, and -- among other things -- the books made me think about that fact a little more clearly. In book one, Fifty Shades of Grey, main character Anastasia Steele asks Byronic hero Christian Grey if they are going to make love. He says no; they are going to fuck.

That sure caught my attention.

For one, it perked me up as a reader, because it made me hope I'd not have to read about lovers and making love for the next several hours. I hate the phrase "making love" as much as I hate the word "lovers."  (In an episode of 30 Rock, Liz Lemon summed up my feelings perfectly: "Lovers... Oh that word bums me out unless it's between meat and pizza.") I don't know why, maybe I have some deep-seeded emotional issues to sort out, but both "lovers" and "making love" give me the heebie jeebies.

But aside from that, it made me think about what each means. While each person's background affects his or her connotation of a word, for the most part you would be hard pressed to find a person who does not see or feel the difference here. Ana is looking for a physical encounter with the potential for emotional connection. Christian wants carnal gratification where the only feeling is sexual fulfillment.

It's potato/vodka. Each has similarities. Fact: potatoes are used to make vodka. But when you get down to it, they are not the same.

And that gave me another thought. Considering my discomfort with reading or hearing certain words and phrases, will I use them in my own stories? Could I ever write about characters being "lovers" or "making love" seriously?

I've often told my friends they'll never read either of those in my books. I just don't like them. But then, after reading these books, I'm thinking about it differently. Sex might be an umbrella word for everything, but it might not fit every situation. Now, I'd like to think I could say it if it was for the better good of the story.

But can I get past my own inhibitions with them?And are there any other words I have problems with?

While I do soul searching on this subject, I'll mention a book Where Did That Word Come From? It's been on my bookshelf for years -- I received it as a gift from someone -- but I took a gander at it this weekend. Similar to a dictionary, the book defines words and provides context for how and where many words originated in the English language.

For example:

(What can I say? I've been reading sexy books all weekend.)

Now I'm curious for your thoughts. Do any of you have weird hatred of certain words or phrases? Do you use them in your stories?

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