Monday, August 30, 2010

The Hidden Meaning of Words

There is a commerical for a new television show. At the end it displays the word BELIEVE and all the letters fade out except for the word LIE.

That commerical got me thinking about THE MUSIC MAN, one of my favorite musicals. In it, is a song sung by a quartet, that says, "How can there be any SIN in sincere?", "Where is the GOOD in goodbye?", "How can there be any FAIR in farewell?" To that I'll also add, why is there HELL in hello? It makes me wonder about these words and their "hidden" meanings. Should we really read into the fact that these smaller words are opposite of what the actual word intends?

I wonder, too, why dieting always makes me feel like I'm going to DIE. And why there are always MEN involved in being menstrual and menopausal. Really, they should just make themselves useful by getting us chocolate and then staying far away (except maybe to do the dishes or something).

Have any of you ever noticed these hidden words? Does it make you pause? It definately does for me.

All of this made me think of our job as writers. Are we really saying what we want to say? Is our true intent coming across? Or are our readers seeing a hidden message?

Sometimes hidden meanings are good - our audience should "read between the lines" so to speak. But there are times that what we we've expressed is exactly as it is.

As an example, my middle-grade book, CINDERSKELLA starts like this:

"It all started when my mother died. I would say it sucked (because for most people it would, especially if they’re only 11 ¾ like me), but if I did, my dad would give me a look. You know the one. It says, 'If parents could still wash their children’s mouths out with soap, I’d scrub your tongue with a bar of Dial.' So, instead, I’ll just say it was awful."

When my MC says it sucked - there's absolutely no hidden meaning in that. I mean, it does suck when someone you love dies. There really isn't another word for it (at least not to a pre-teen). But when she goes on to describe what her father's reaction would be to her choice of words, there's a lot that could be read between the lines: He's strict, Cindy and her dad don't have a very good relationship, maybe you even think he's abusive (he's not). The next sentence has some hidden meaning, too: despite her relationship with her father, Cindy respects him. Either that or she doesn't like the taste of soap. Whatever the reason that you've chosen it has all given another meaning to the words. Perhaps it even gets you thinking about future events in the story.

All of these words, especially the ones with hidden meanings, propel our story. They hint at characterizations, plot, action and motivation. Isn't that what we want as writers? Some of the best writing I've seen doesn't tell the reader that their character is smart, sassy, witty or conflicted. It shows it between the lines.

So are you being careful? Are you skillfully selecting your words and sentences with hidden meaning?

18 comments:

Stina Lindenblatt said...

LOL. I try. It just doesn't always come out the way I plan.

Great post, Amie!

Terri Tiffany said...

Oh you did a great job with this!! I try really hard to do it. What I am finding is sometimes what I get, someone else doesn't and it makes me have to go back and reconsider what I've written.

Jen said...

This was an awesome post! I love the little sneak peak into your novel as well, it sounds really cute!

I find in my stories that I have hidden meanings without even realizing I come across it. My subconcious gives me what I need, it is my husband who chuckles and asks me if I had planned something that had been placed. 9 times out of 10 I say no, it was my creative mind that put the puzzle pieces together.

I'm amazed at the hidden meanings America has behind so many words. I'm also amazed that after months of working on a story there are those moments where you see that piece for what it's worth, true beauty and creativity.

Cruella Collett said...

Funny how you too started with commercials today ;)

If there is anything working with my thesis for two years have taught me (okay, there might be more than just this, even if at certain days it doesn't feel that way...), it is to choose my words carefully. There is no such thing as neutral language, I'm afraid, so the trick is to know what your words are loaded with. Seemingly innocent choices of words can have HUGE impact on the meaning and implication of the text.

So yes. Even if I hadn't specifically though about the fact that there is/shouldn't be hell in hello, I do consider carefully what words I use.

Great post!

lbdiamond said...

LOL! This is precisely why I don't DIEt! ;)

I loved your excerpt--you make a very poignant point.

Amy Allgeyer Cook said...

[sigh] why? Why did you have to mention DIET right off the Monday-morning bat? I was hoping to skate through 'til Tuesday afternoon, maybe even Wednesday before someone reminded me -bam- that I'm supposed to be dieting. Then I could slap my forehead and say, "Sh*t (which has 'hit' in it, which is what I did to my head), I totally forgot I was supposed to die this week. I'll give a try next week instead." But no. Now I have to start [sigh, tart] today.

Amie B said...

Stina - I'm sure it will! keep it up!

Thanks Teri! Loved your post today - waiting with baited breath for your advice tomorrow!

Jen - isn't it great when other people can point out our genius? love that!

Cruella - commericals do seem to be the theme of the day!

Laura - I'm dying because I'm dieting today!

LOL - Amy - that was TOO funny!

Rose Cooper said...

This is a great post! I never realized all the hidden words within words. It's funny to see all that and I love how you suggest readers should read between the lines. I think if a story is written well, the reader gets a lot from the story based on not only what is written in front of them, but also what they get out of the "hidden meanings." Nice job!

Elana Johnson said...

This is a great reminder to be mindful of the words we choose. I've seen that commercial and it's great -- as is your opening!

Bethany Mattingly said...

LOL I loved this post! I was laughing through the first entire bit and reading out aloud to my roommate. Together, I think the entire dorm shook. :) I also really enjoyed your excerpt. It definitely would have made me keep reading. I hope I'm being careful with my word choice. Your post definitely got me thinking more about it and I'm going to take a closer look at what I am writing.

Becky said...

I just discovered your blog.
This post is funny and also profound. It's not often you get that combination.
I remember hearing a similar idea to yours with reference to the word water which has 'what' in it (without the 'h').
You can't describe water accurately. It's description is full of negatives or absences. It's colourless and tasteless. It's the ultimate liquid which means it doesn't have a shape. I could go on but the point is what is it not what is it not.

I'm going to check in here from time to time.

http://studentat30.blogspot.com

Stephen Tremp said...

I ike to be clever inmy writing and hide clues and stuff that surface later. Its fun and challenges toe writer to do more than, well, write.

Stephen Tremp

Melanie J said...

It's all about the show don't tell, right?

Gina Rose said...

We were just last night marveling at why "manners" would begin with man, when men (usually) never use manners -- my 10-year-old pointed out that it should be womanners... Anyway, I love your interresting and thought-provoking postings, but you definitely get the prize for the prettiest blog ever!

Amie B said...

oh gina! i love your kids! they're so cute! thanks for your kind words!

Lisa Gail Green said...

Oh I'm so glad you found me! Because I LOVE this post and the blog looks great. You made me laugh. Why IS there "men" in "menstrual?" And your book sounds awesome!

Kittie Howard said...

You made me laugh...and think. Loved your book snippet. Don't think there's a father-daughter confrontation, just that the daughter is growing up and spreading her WINgs. Great post!!

Julie Musil said...

I love your opening! What great lines.

I've never noticed the hidden meaning in those words. How pathetic is that? When writing, I do try to be careful of the words I choose, especially after the first draft.

By the way, love the reference to soap. When I was a child, my mom washed out my mouth with soap several times. I remember the chunks of soap sticking to my pointy teeth. Ugh! But I don't cuss, so take that for what it's worth!