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WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?


The gardens are bursting into bloom and leaf with more rain in sight. The old song “Wishing Will Make It So” has proved once more that someone is listening.

Small words are usually harder to define than long ones. I recently read that a group of lexicographers were revamping an obscure dictionary and found all the short, throw-away words like “a”, “the” “as” etc., were difficult to define in a simple way, but the long hard to say words were easy to break down. I am reminded of Bill Clinton’s use of the word “is” in his defense: “It all depends on the meaning of the word “is”. What does that mean? What’s wrong with “if”? “If only I hadn’t taken that position.” Well, History will debate it for a few years and then forget about it.

Dr. A once told me that he couldn’t decide whether I was clever or smart. Either way I was in trouble. A rat can cleverly avoid capture in a trap, but does that make him smart? If he was smart he would eat the large block of cheese in the cupboard before it ever got to the trap. We once had one who quietly ate an entire gingerbread house without disturbing the box it was in, and leaving one piece of candy as a parting thank you. If I were clever I would invent ways of doing simple jobs in a simpler way. If I were smart, I would be rich and famous and wouldn’t need to worry about being either smart or clever, because I could hire it out.

Our use of words is important. Some words often mean one thing to one person and something entirely different to another. A young girl dating a hormonally active boy may say “NO”, but the boy hears “YES”, to her dismay. Today we sometimes sprinkle our conversation with words from another culture. Our son-in-law instructed the Mexican gardener to remove some moss growing in his flower bed by saying “No Mas” which the gardener rightfully heard as “No More”, and took our the entire bed.

My husband refers to one side of the house as “the front yard, but clearly the address in on the other side of the house which makes it the front yard.

Mark Twain was a pretty good wordsmith and story teller and modestly claimed to know how a story ought to be told, being frequently in the company of other writers and story-tellers. Their use of words was their livelihood.

According to Mark Twain there are several kinds of stories, but only one difficult kind–the humorous. The humorous story is American, the comic story is English, the witty story is French. The humorous story depends for its effect upon the manner of the telling; the comic story and the witty story upon the matter.

Already we can see there is a difference between humor, comedy and wit. Yet they all amuse.

“The humorous story may be spun out to great length, and may wander around as much as it pleases, and arrive nowhere in particular; but the comic and witty stories must be brief and end with a point. The humorous story bubbles gently along, the others burst. The humorous story is strictly a work of art—high and delicate art–and only an artist can tell it; but no art is necessary in telling the comic and the witty story; anybody can do it. The art of telling a humorous story was created in America and has remained at home.

The humorous story is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it; but the teller of the comic story tells you beforehand that it is one of the funniest things he has ever heard, then tells it with eager delight, and is the first person to laugh when he gets through. And sometimes, if he has had good success, he is so glad and happy that he will repeat the ‘nub’ of it and glance around from face to face, collecting applause, and then repeat it again. It is a pathetic thing to see.

“Very often, of course, the rambling and disjointed humorous story finishes with a nub, point, snapper, or whatever you like to call it. Then the listener must be alert, for in many cases the teller will divert attention from that nub by dropping it in a carefully casual and indifferent way, with the pretense that he does not know it is a nub.

But the teller of the comic story does not slur the nub; he shouts it at you—every time. And when he prints it, in England, France, Germany, and Italy, he italicizes it, puts some whooping exclamation points after it, and sometimes explain it in a parentheses. All of which is very depressing, and one want to renounce joking and lead abetter life.”

(Parts taken from “How To Tell a Story” by Mark Twain)

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11 comments on “WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?

  1. I got to the part about no moss, and started laughing uncontrollably. I’m going to go have supper, make a cup of coffee, and see if I can compose myself enough to make it all the way through your post. Believe me — I’ve had my own experience with my Spanish-speaking compatriots on the docks, but that beats all. Back soon!

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  2. You are so right, Kayti. Words are tricky and the fact that they can mean different things to different people explains a lot about the difficulty of getting on.
    I also think that words and meanings can change between the sexes.

    Helvi reckons that I miss the meaning of ‘put it in the basket’ by hearing and interpreting it as ‘leave it where it is.’

    Most people use far too many words. It is almost as if they think words are free while in fact they can cost a fortune. This is where lawyers step in. They can transform words into dollars very efficiently.

    Per capita Australia has one of the largest army of lawyers in the world, and almost on par with McDonalds franchises. I don’t know the connection. There must be a link somewhere.

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    • Meanings change between the generations too. Some of the slang used by today’s teenagers would shame the older generation if they really knew and meant what they are saying. That hasn’t changed though. Some of the teenage vernacular when I was a kid would have cost me a mouth washed out with soap if my mother heard it, and meant nothing but trying to be clever. What goes around comes around as they say.
      Our friend owned all the McDonalds in town years ago. When my husband asked him what was the toughest thing about running them except the hamburgers, he said “Getting good help.” Probably still true.

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  3. Supper was supper: a nice curry chicken salad, and some left-over tomato salad from Sunday. All the chicken salad’s gone now, but I’m still laughing at your tale.

    Twain’s comments about the nub surrounded by exclamation points, italicized within an inch of its typographical life, made me laugh, too. I try very hard to resist the exclamation point, but it’s everywhere, and insidious. It must be losing its effectiveness, since many people now add not one, but two or three exclamation points at the end of a perfectly declarative sentence.

    The ellipsis is running a close second, though. Have you noticed how often… very frequently, in fact… those little dots show up? I’ll use them inside an edited quotation, but now and then…

    I’m never sure whether to read them as “I’m leaving you free to add your own thoughts” or “I just got distracted by the dog, and decided to abandon this sentence and let you do with it what you will.”

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    • Now it’s my turn to laugh. I like blaming the dog for nearly everything. After all, he’s a Jack Russell who has a built in reputation.

      The comma has become ubiquitous as well. They are such unabashedly cute little things and help decorate an otherwise boring piece of …..

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  4. What a lovely garden! It looks so peaceful. Don’t let the Mexican gardener near it. LOL

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  5. This is why I love words, so complicated and simple at the same time! Your garden is looking splendid. x

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  6. Oh, Kayti, thanks for your amusing and insightful thoughts on words and their connotations and for introducing me to Mark Twain’s “How to Tell a Story.” I’m sorry I haven’t come across it sooner. I love the way he models the humorous writing he’s expounding on. I am going to google his piece and read it all. And I’m quite sure that you, dear lady, are both clever and smart.

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