When The Same Words Mean Different Things To Different People

24 Apr

Those who follow this blog regularly will know that I’ve recently sent out the manuscript for my next book (The Outbreak) out to a variety of people to get their opinions. Along with the usual issues getting this type of feedback throws up, something more interesting has come to my attention. This is that certain words of phrases have not only changed their meanings over time, but also can differ dramatically from one country to another, even if they use the same language.

This realisation came about because I’d used the word nonplussed to describe someone’s reaction to an event. I was using it in the traditional sense of the character being so surprised and confused that they didn’t know how to react. Yet, some of my readers were taking it to mean quite the opposite, in that it was suggesting the character was unperturbed by the event. Wondering where this confusion was coming from, and which of us were right, I turned to an online dictionary and found, to my surprise, that we both were. In standard English, nonplussed means being surprised and confused, but in North American colloquial English, it means the opposite. This means that North American readers are potentially going to think the character’s reaction is completely the opposite to the intended meaning, which (given that it’s a post-apocalyptic zombie survival novel) is likely to cause confusion.

I’ve noticed the same thing happen with the phrase ‘butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth’ (I don’t know while this tends to be applied to women more than men, but that seems to be the case). When I was growing up, this meant a mean, hard-hearted person who was so cold to everyone else that literally they didn’t have the physical warmth to melt a knob of butter placed in their mouth. This certainly seems to be the original meaning. However, these days, it tends to be taken to mean that someone is so sweet and innocent that they wouldn’t be able to melt butter in their mouth, let alone do anything more heinous. This is certainly the Free Dictionary definition. To me, the older meaning makes more sense, but that might just be because it’s what I always took it to mean. However, if I use the phrase when writing, different people are going to take it to mean completely different things.

There’s other words, too, which can have very different meanings in different places. I remember when I was living in The Bahamas calling a friend’s young daughter a ninny because she was being a bit daft, using the meaning I’d alway used for it of a fool or simpleton. In Bahamian English, though, it means something quite different, and a little bit rude – and judging by the looks of those around me, certainly not something you should be calling a child, or indeed anyone else, in polite company.

And then there’s the whole pants and suspenders confusion again. In North America, this is normal male attire. In Britain, it most definitely isn’t, and it paints an entirely different mental image if you describe a man as wearing them to a party!

All this leads to an interesting conundrum for writers. Do yo try to avoid all ambiguity, and only use words and phrases with one, well-accepted meaning? Or do you use the words you want regardless whether they may be mis-construed by some readers? If you choose the former option, you’re restricting yourself to a much narrower range words than if you choose the latter, and in many cases this means you cannot be as descriptive or interesting in your writing. In addition, the meaning of words change all the time, and you can never future-proof your writing against such changes, so why restrict yourself now?

For my current book, I’m going to take the second option and stick with using nonplussed based on its original meaning, and I’ll just have hope that it won’t confuse too many potential readers. In addition, hopefully from the context, it will be clear which meaning I’m intending, but the worry remains, are there any other words I’ve use which mean something quite different in other parts of the world?

In the age of regional publication, this was less of an issue as separate editions could be produced for different markets with slightly different word usage. For example, the first Harry Potter book was titled Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone in the UK, but Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone in the US, because of how people would interpret the word ‘Philosopher’ in different markets (it was felt it might put US readers off). However, in the age of global publishing, where a single edition (often an electronic one) may be available worldwide, this is becoming a more important issue. This having been said, though, authors shouldn’t necessarily let such issues dictate the way they write, or the way they use their words, but is something they should at least be aware of.


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From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.

To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.

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