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The Life of a Word


Whatever the birth story, some words live exciting lives of change while others retain their original meaning. Words can undergo changes by being clipped as mentioned above or by being combined with other words to form completely new ones. Some words become more powerful. For example, the words filth and foul were originally used to mean plain old “dirt.” Originally, you might wipe down your kitchen counter at the end of the day because it was filthy or foul. Today filthy and foul have taken on a more powerful meaning so that you probably only associate filth and foul with the nearest garbage dump. Another example of a word that has gained force is disaster. At one time, the word simply referred to “an unlucky event.” Today, we hear the word used in reference to “disaster areas” resulting from earthquakes, floods, and tornadoes. There is much more power associated with the word now.


Words can also lose power. Take the word mortify, for example. It originally meant “to make dead.” Now it can simply refer to a moment of humiliation: He was mortified when he realized that his zipper was down during his important speech. Other words have powerful meanings, even as depicted in the dictionary, but in everyday speech they are used rather casually. For example, the word atrocious by definition refers to something that is “extremely savage or wicked.” But you’ve probably heard the word in reference to someone’s taste in style: Did you see that atrocious purple and green striped dress she was wearing?


Words gain power and they lose power. Words can also gain or lose a bad reputation. The word lewd has gained a negative connotation over the years from its original reference to all laymen. From there it evolved to present-day where it now encompasses things that are “indecent or obscene.” On the other hand, marshal once referred to a person who took care of horses. Over the years, the position gained more respect and now not only refers to the person who controls parades, but also refers to someone in a high-ranking position such as a sheriff.


In both the example of lewd and the example of marshal, not only did the meanings change from positive to negative and vice versa, but they also changed in scope. Lewd became more narrow in its meaning, marshal more broad. Butcher is another example of a word that has broadened in scope. A butcher was originally a man who killed goats. Nowadays, you can expect to find a vast array of meats in a butcher shop. By contrast, the original meaning of disease was “ill at ease.” The word has narrowed its scope over the years so that now it refers to specific ailments and maladies.


What a boring language we would speak if words did not change in so many different ways! And how mundane our speech would be if it were not colored with such flourishes as slang and colloquialisms. The word slang was coined by combining the word slinging with the word language. Specific to certain countries, even just to particular regions of a country, slang refers to very informal language. Slang should therefore not be used in your graduate classes. Slang generally stays with the time and examples include such words as yuppie, valleygirl, and phat. Slang can also include standard words that portray alternate, often ironic, meanings; for example, the word bad when used as slang can describe something that is actually good. Think of slang as language you would use only when you are chillin’ (slang for “spending time with”) with your closest friends.


Colloquialisms are also informal although they are more widely accepted. Still, you should not use colloquial speech in your graduate work. You could use colloquial language with those with whom you are close but perhaps not quite as familiar as your best buddies—your parents, for example. Instead of chillin’ with your family, you might hang out with them. Or you might tell a co-worker to give you a holler if he wants to get together for lunch. Clearly, knowing your audience is important when choosing the language you will use. Since your work on the GRE and in graduate school is for a formal audience, formal language should be favored; avoid slang and colloquialisms.


You should also avoid overusing euphemisms, or “delicate” language. In our world of political correctness, there is a natural tendency to substitute “nice” words for real words. For example, you might describe a “domestic engineer” who is “with child.” Translation? A pregnant housewife. The best writing conveys a real point clearly and therefore euphemisms should be used sparingly.


While slang, colloquialism, and euphemism, though informal, are ways to bring the personality of a writer or speaker out in the open, a more subtle way to express such character is through connotative writing. In comparison to denotative language, connotative words possess undertones of emotion. Denotation is factual. Take the word gentleman, for example. Gentleman is a connotative word that contains much more meaning than does the denotative word man. To picture a man is just to picture a male human. But to picture a gentleman is to imagine a well-dressed man who brings flowers, opens doors, and pulls out chairs for his lady. And of course a lady is not just a woman but a sophisticated female who is elegant and courteous, who quietly laughs at the right time and crosses her legs when she sits down. A lady is lovely (connotative), not just pretty (denotative).

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