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.”


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



I see puns everywhere

Some writers–and I’m one of them–see double meanings in almost every word. I’ll admit that in “real life,” this annoys people.

I’m real sorry about it, but when somebody innocently asks me what my plans are for hump day, I’m going to reply with a straight face: “Sex, how about you?”

And I’m doubly sorry that on more than one occasion when the conversation drifts to the kinds of security measures one sees on shows like “24” and in movies like “True Lies” and mentions the retinal scans at the entrances to protected areas, I can’t help but pretend I’m hearing “rectal scans.”

Innocent Friend: “The burglaries around the neighborhood are beginning to scare me.
Me: “Sometimes I think we need to post armed guards at our front doors while we’re away from the house.”
Innocent Friend: “Either that or put in a retinal scan device like Jack Bauer has to put up with at CTU.”
Me: “I just can’t see having to moon my front door to get in.”
Innocent Friend: “Oh, hell, that’s retinal scans, not rectal scans!”

People have been known to ask my wife, “Is he like this all the time?” She sighs, knowingly, rolls her eyes, and proclaims: “Worse than you could ever imagine.”

Double meanings give writers a chance to create some wonderfully symbolic images. I loved the broken dugout water fountain in the movie “The Natural.” Before the cantankerous team manager Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley) allows the aging Roy Hobbs do anything other than sit on the bench, the water fountain is dry as a bone. After he lets Hobbs have an at bat in a game, he walks over and the water flows freely. There are so many meanings in this scene, it’s impossible to talk about them all in one post.

The double meanings in water, light, sunsets, dawns, spring, winter provide exceptional opportunities for symbolism. The writer can say one thing in a literal way, but the reader also notes the double meaning there and gets the message.

I’ve written my share of celestial phrases, but the trickster in me has a lot more fun with hump day and rectal scans. Yes, I know, in the world of words and their meanings, I’m often on the Dark Side. When I hear, for example, that somebody got banged up in a wreck, I really do want to offer all of the empathy and solace of which a human being is capable.

Yet–and I suppose I should be ashamed of this–my thoughts cannot avoid the kind of thinking that went into this short excerpt from my satirical thriller Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire:

“Billy baby, you’re being soooo formal this morning,” said Delaney.
“I have an official request.”
“Sure,” she said, laughing.
“Does the department have an ID on the individual who stole Marcus’s truck?”
“Yeah, Billy baby, it was one of Clinton’s boys.”
“Which one?”
“The ugly one.”
“That figures. Where’s he now?”
“Still at the ER, probably. He was pretty banged up.”
“I heard the truck was a mess.”
“No, it wasn’t from the wreck; it was from Darla,” said Norma. “She’s pretty thorough when she has sex with a guy.”
“My goodness.”

Truth be told, I know I can’t get away with using some of the puns I think up, so my solution was to let my hard-boiled investigative reporter say them. Both my wife and I thought the novel would get all the puns out of my system and allow us to lead normal, pun-free lives.

Unfortunately not.


P.S. You can find the e-book version of Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire in multiple formats on Smashwords for only $5.99 and begin suffering immediately the kinds of slings and arrows my friends put up with on a daily basis.