27 December 2012

The Meaning of Words

 "When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."

It sounds preposterous. And we all laugh at Lewis Carroll's humour. After all, we have dictionaries and we have origins. Words have precise meanings, don't they? 

Um. No. They never have. Not really. The early seventeenth century English of Shakespeare and The King James' Bible bears only a passing resemblance to our own in vocabulary as well as its syntax and meaning. We all know how, more recently, the word gay has changed its meaning so drastically that we can no longer use it when we want to mean happy and carefree. Well, we could, but it wouldn't work. Even if I wanted my Victorian aunt to say she was feeling gay I couldn't without jolting the reader back into the twenty-first century and making them raise an eyebrow. I know that this is a word she would use if she'd just enjoyed a dance with the curate with whom she is in love and so would be absolutely authentic. But it's been rendered a no-go area for maiden aunts in love - even from the pen of an historical novelists.

Language can be a snare for the unwary.

I'm not complaining. It's just the way things are. I do get cross that if I were to write that I'm indifferent about Christmas crackers and too many people would think I didn't like them, when in fact I meant that I have no opinion on them either way.

We all have our pet peeves about words that change their meanings through time. My mother thinks 'Americanisms' do not have a place in an English dictionary. But she is 88 so I forgive her.  And as for preserving our favourites, we might as well stick our thumbs in the dyke. Language evolves. And it has always been a slippery concept. (So who sniggered when I wrote about those thumbs in the dyke  See what I mean?) The way each of us use words tells us a great deal about them - and hooray for that. Someone might say their elbow twinges a bit whereas another person might call it agony when the pain is of the same intensity. It's all a matter of perception.

So I suppose I shouldn't get irritated when I read someone's Twitter or Facebook profile that proclaims he or she is a published author. But I'm sorry to say I do. To me published has a precise meaning and to me it does not mean they have handed over their manuscript to any old Tom, Dick and Mary who exercise no critical eye to quality or sales-worthiness. Or even if they've downloaded it themselves through Kindle Publishing after a thorough (or often, not-so-thorough) self-edit. I've nothing against self-publishing if that's the way someone chooses to go. In many circumstances it is exactly the right thing to do. But the word itself - to publish - no longer has a precise meaning and so slippery it is rapidly becoming meaningless.

So when someone writes that, I find myself checking the name of the publisher (If its credentials are unknown to me)  or the method of publication and using that to decide whether I consider that author is what I would call published. I know what I mean.

Being published is not as clear-cut as it once was. Or perhaps it never was? (And please don;t tell me Virginia Woolf was self-published. She was not. Even though Wikipedia says so. It may have been fortunate that after she'd been published by Duckworth that she and Leonard set up their own publishing company (Hogarth Press) but it was a well-regarded house that published many other authors. She continued to be published by Harcourt Brace in the US.)

I know what I mean by being published. How about you? Do you call yourself a published author? Should you call yourself one? Have the goal-posts been moved or has the word evolved? Am I old-fashioned? (No. Don't answer that one.)


  1. I feel a little sad about the way language has evolved, and because I don't think we should forget the meaning of words in their pre-20th-21st-century usage, I sometimes employ them with old-fashioned significance. I mean...there really is no word as good as 'gay' to express the state of carefree, giddy happiness. Carefree, giddy and happy all have their own nuances which don't exactly mean 'gay'. But it's true, saying something is 'gay' nowadays is rather fraught with double entendres.

    Anyway, if you're old-fashioned, I'm old-fashioned. 'Published' for me means that someone else besides myself took my work and decided it was good enough for the public. 'Self-published' means just that: I alone took my work and decided it was good enough. There's a totally different nuance.

  2. I entirely agree with you on both counts, SolariC. I'm a puritan when it comes to the meaning of thre word 'publishing'. However, evolution and adaptation is absolutely necessary if language is not to wither and die. It keeps it in good health. But that doesn't mean we can't mourn.

  3. Yes, for me too, published means someone who knows about the business took my work, paid me for it (ie, put their money where their mouth was) and then arranged for the work to be put out there for people to buy. The exchange of money both from publisher to author and from public to publisher is important. You can be 'published' on an internet ezine where the author is not paid and the public don't pay to read. That's not proper publishing to this old-fashioned gal either.