The delightful snares of ambiguity

There’s the lame of joke that has to do with a husband asking his wife “What’s wrong” and she says, “Nothing.” In this case, “nothing” means “something.”

If somebody laughs and says, “You’re the world’s greatest lover” it means you aren’t.

Satire, sarcasm, irony, words with multiple meanings: these things can be a writer’s greatest joys and for others the greatest hell.

If you live in North Florida, then you know that if my response to you is, “No, yeh” it means yes, but that if it’s “Yeh, no” it means no. Slang and dialect and passing language fads ad to the mix of joys and hells.

Years ago, if somebody was called “badass,” that meant nasty, trashy, murderous, unkempt. Now, it’s a badge of honor. The changing meanings of words and phrases through time add to the fun as well as the snare of language. And then there are all those words and phrases that are perfectly fine in the U.S. will get you in big trouble in England, another example of two countries separated by a common language.  (That phrase doesn’t quite tell you if “common” means low class or if it means “the same.”)

And heaven help us if parents try to understand what their children are talking about, especially if they’re texting.

No wonder people have trouble communicating with each other when they have the best of intentions.

I always have fun yanking people’s chains when they say things like “nothing is sacred.” I know what they mean, that is, that people are not treating sacred words, songs, motions, ceremonies, etc. as sacred. But if I pretend to take the person who says that literally, I ask how it’s possible for nothing itself to be sacred. Or, when they say, “Nothing’s certain,” I ask how it can be that the only certainty comes from nothing.

“Nothing” is one of those words that begs to be played with.

The delightful snares in language work to a writer’s advantage if s/he is writing mysteries, satire, comedy, and ghost stories. The snares are also quite common in the hands of politicians. Meanwhile, the reader assumes the writer (or politician) is writing to reveal when they’re writing to conceal.  ‘Struth, maybe none of us are any better than PR flaks.

The only way I can think of to end this post is: “Can you see what I’m saying.”

Malcolm

If you love double meanings and nasty wordplay, you’ll enjoy “Special Investigative Reporter.”

 

 

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