Thursday, January 22, 2009

How semantics can help you! Part 2

Neural networks are really amazing things. In my last post I talked about how a word brings up all of its meanings simultaneously; today I'm going to talk about how that's not all it brings up.

I'm talking about connotations and allusion.

Along with all of its meanings, the mention of a word can bring up all the contexts in which we've encountered it. With exceedingly common words, there may not be a particular context that stands out, and the word may have a more generic feeling. With less common words, we may really notice how they evoke the context in which they were created (Quidditch, anyone?) or in which they were used. Regardless, these contexts always tag along, and they influence the way we hear a word.

Has anyone ever tried to use the word "ejaculate" as a dialog tag? No? It used to be common enough, but I'm guessing you can see why we don't use it so much that way any more. (Dialog tags are out of fashion anyway because they can be distracting.)

This reminds me of a discussion I had on the Analog forum about euphemisms. They tend to get "used up" and replaced by others quite quickly. Why? Because of the contexts in which they are used. If those contexts are considered dirty or low, then the quality of the context will be evoked in the speaker or writer's mind with every occurrence of the word, and eventually the word will be sullied by its association with that context.

In my classes at the school of Education at UC Berkeley, occasionally the word "intertextuality" came up. It essentially means that a word will evoke in the reader's mind all the texts in which they have seen it. "Monster" can bring up Frankenstein, or Monsters Inc. or any number of other things. This is one of the reasons that my friend Paul Carlson was able to put together his list of words that evoke particular genres (find it here).

When you're writing, it might be daunting to remember that there are a million layers floating behind everything you say, particularly when you choose a word that doesn't occur so frequently as to become semi-generic. Almost any word can become more than it is, much like the few critical words used in ancient Japanese poetry (I'm thinking primarily of tanka, not haiku).

Daunting, sure - but what an opportunity! This stuff can allows you to imbue a scene with a sense of foreboding or excitement. The other thing it can do is allow you to illuminate your point of view character. All of the judgments of value inherent in a particular word will reflect on the user of that word. We see this all the time in oral language when we judge people based on their use of cuss words or insulting words for others. In a piece of narrative writing, all those judgments will be associated with the point of view character. It's one of the ways that point of view can extend into your writing far beyond the simple first and third person pronouns.

That's it for tonight, but I'm starting to feel more stable, so I hope I'll have another post up in the next day or so.


  1. Thanks, Juliette.

    It's always interesting to see who's clicking around on the web. :-)

    I try to use "said" most of the time, and when going beyond that, find a dialog tag that really fits the mood. (Easier said than done, eh?)

    Once in a while folks get into a binge of creating Tom Swifites. Groaners and a half.

    "These primitive savages are always throwing my favorite virgins in there," the miffed explorer erupted.

    "Don't throw that gas on the fire or we're doomed!" he exclaimed hotly.

    -- or even --

    "Why ma'am, that sure is a nice [fill in the blank] you have," he ejaculated.

    (Paul ducks and runs . . . )

  2. LOL Paul.

    Ahem, to reassemble my scattered thoughts...

    When I was about ten I used "ejaculate" quite innocently, and correctly, in a conversation with, *gulp* my mother. She was, er, rather distressed. I tried to explain to her that it just means something similar to exclaim, only perhaps a bit stronger, and that anyway it was used that way all the time in the Hardy Boys books (I was probably reading one at the time). And, as I think of it now, she really should have known better. There is a classification of Catholic prayers (probably exists in other faith traditions too) called ejaculations. Older grammar books even have a classification, ejaculation, for such utterences as oh, ah, and ouch. It is a perfectly normal, unremarkable word, and I'm displeased that nobody can use it anymore because the only denotation currently in popular use is the physiological one.

    Dialogue tags are not inherently distracting. They do have to be used correctly, though.

  3. I don't mean dialogue tags should never be used, just that they should be used when they contribute something essential to the progress of the narrative. Such things can often be done by other means. I often use dialogue tags to indicate speaker mood, but I always back them up with surrounding material as well; and I do tend to use mostly "said."

  4. This post has been rattling around in my brain for a long time, and I just wanted to comment and say that thinking about all the layers of meaning that each word has is really fascinating! I can't wait to put it to use in my writing!

    I was reminded of this post today when I read the title of another blog post elsewhere that really resonated with me, and I realized that it relied heavily on the connotations of the words rather than the literal meaning. The title is: "A Wounded Galaxy Sings with Light". It's almost nonsense taken literally, but with the extra layers of meaning for all the words, it becomes a lot more powerful.

    Very interesting stuff!