For years now, whenever I’ve spoken at book clubs, I’ve told my audiences, “The book you read is not the book I wrote.” That’s because reading is a participatory experience. We bring our personal histories, prejudices, expectations, hopes and concerns to our interpretations of what we see on the page. That, in turn, can color the narrative and dialog, often making our reading of a book uniquely our own.
I’ve understood that concept for so long that I shouldn’t have been surprised when I was blindsided by a friend’s adverse reaction to a word I had written. I consider the word in and of itself a neutral description. But as far as she was concerned, it was a highly charged, derogatory expression.
My father often told me a story about his older sister Rose and the neighborhood sprecher.
In 1918, my Aunt Rose lay feverish and weak, barely aware of her mother wiping her brow with a cool cloth. Even my Grandma Anna was beginning to lose hope. That’s when they called in the sprecher.
At this point in the story, Dad would explain that sprecher meant “speaker.” I never learned Yiddish, but some of his words stuck; this one particularly. And it has influenced me in more ways than I’d realized.
The sprecher’s role in the Jewish immigrant community was to sit by the bedside of a seriously ill loved one, to hold her spirit within her body with his words, to not let it fly away, to fight death itself with his own spirit.Read More
For instance, consider the word iniquity (which was highlighted some time ago in an email from Visual Thesaurus). The root is the same as equity or equal. But with the opposing prefix “in,” the word has come to mean unequal, therefore wrong, therefore evil. At least that’s how the word has evolved and come down to us. So, if I use iniquity in a story, it would color the sense of wrongness with an underlyingRead More
Okay, I admit it, I’m acrynomically challenged. It seems that new abbreviations appear daily on my twitter feed, in emails, even in articles of magazines that I think of as mainstream (i.e. written in “commonly accepted” English). And I’m sent scurrying to Google to try to find the newest definitions for acronyms that didn’t exist or meant something entirely different the last time I looked.
Language has always been the dividing line between “insiders” and “outsiders.” In one story in the Bible, how a person pronounced the word “shibboleth” determined whether a sentry would kill him or let him pass. So it has been through the centuries. Words and accents have determined what tribe will accept you, whether it’s social class, professional standing or “belonging” to a certain group, gang or tribe. But it seems to me that it’s gotten worse in this digital age.
Of course, language is a living, malleable thing, always changing. The slang of the 1920s is now considered either passé or has been integrated into college curriculum for English Lit 101. As an author, I enjoy Read More