A nose by any other name would smell…

Words… slippery, elusive things, but all we have as writers. The visual or audio medium have a whole lot more tools. I mean, I am pretty certain most viewers get ‘I need a bigger pot’ from this without any chance of confusion.

bigger pot

Writing about it is more complicated. For starters words mean different things in different places. I gather this cheese – a popular product, which I use quite a lot myself would be product non grata in US supermarkets… without an apostrophe that is. Who knew that comma was so powerful?


And this enjoyable icy pole (yes, that is a term for ice-cream on a stick) would…. provoke an interesting reaction too.

golden gaytime 006

The origins of both products come from times when the words had different meanings – at least in the local context. It’s not the words themselves that are offensive or even suggestive. They’re just letters in some order. It’s what they mean to their audience that is, or isn’t offensive. Our reactions –at least our initial reactions come from those associations

It’s why people who dress up in black shirts (and masks) to beat people up, intimidate and silence them, who believe in an authoritarian government (which would presumably at least promise to make the trains run on time) call themselves Anti-fascists. Otherwise it might be easy for the reader to get confused and leap to the obvious conclusion.

Words carry baggage. A word is not just a word, it’s a set of associations, meanings and even context. Calling a spade a spade… does not necessarily mean ‘a thing to dig holes’. As a writer this property is both a friend and an enemy. The friend part is obvious – the words can carry so much more than just sum of their letters – dawn – every reader has a dawn in their heads, it just needs a few little additional ‘framing’ details to make the reader believe you brilliant at describing early morning just as he has seen it himself.

The problem of course is that words move, or at least their meanings do. Some move, slowly, by themselves. Others are ‘lifted’ and transported as an attempt at ‘spin’ or rebranding – which results in some interesting doublespeak: where words are used to describe exactly the opposite of what they once meant, or something else entirely (see the Antifa mentioned above, and as obvious examples ‘liberal’ and ‘tolerant’ or ‘gay’). This is made worse by them moving in some localities and not others. What Americans and Australians mean by ‘liberal’ is an example. And of course, like re-branding turds as ‘chicken nuggets’, the effect is brief. Pretty soon people know precisely what ‘chicken nuggets’ still smell of, and the new word just becomes another word for turd. This is rough on the producers of your actual real made-of-un-predigested-chicken chicken nuggets… The clan to which my family are sept and kin are famed through a long history as ‘the gay Gordons’.

So how does this fit into writing advice? As little as I like these re-brandings they’re difficult to fight and even more difficult to keep track of – especially for those of us (like me) who live in remote parts with our access to the world through the distorting lens of the internet. And essentially writing comes down to communicating a story – which tends to fail if you meant, for example, ‘tolerant’ as in putting up with someone else’s viewpoint no matter how different or disagreeable, and the word had magically transformed to ‘tolerant’ meaning putting up with someone else viewpoint so long as it was identical to yours, and silencing and intimidating anyone disagreeing with your ‘tolerance’.

We can’t all be keeping up with the doublespeak landmines, and people in general seem to have a happy acceptance of re-branding. They’re quite happy to refer to smelly brown stuff as ‘chicken nuggets’ (to the despair of the producers of real chicken nuggets) because it rapidly means ‘turd’. The right answer is probably to write in Latin. Alas, the market is somewhat limited in these degenerate days.

Which leaves you with only one answer: getting people in your target audience to be first readers. Now, please don’t misinterpret me – I am not supporting the idea of ‘sensitivity’ readers to appease, for a shakedown, some minority or PC designated victim-class. That smacks of extortion and exploitation to me. It’s a fair call for an author to do their best, to do reasonable research – but mistakes happen. It is after all not the word or innocent error that is nasty, but the intent. If someone starts taking deep offense at something said with no ill-intent – really you have to start asking who has the problem. I’m talking about people who enjoy reading and get a book for free and an acknowledgement in it – a low-hardship win:win to make sure your words mean to them what you’d like them to mean. That it is not the bouquet of wine I refer to but that your schnozz/whiffer/snoot still smells.


  1. I hate how fast the modern language is changing. Or at least meanings of words are changing. Almost gets to the point of waking up and wondering who I am going to offend today just by using my vocabulary.

    1. Me too – but it is a reality. I’ve stopped worrying about ‘offend’ – because seriously people who do a fair job of research will only offend those who are determined to be offended – and they’ll invent new things to be offended by if they find nothing. But I worry about communication – about losing readers because they straight didn’t understand me.

      1. Try to avoid giving offense… and ignore those seeking to take offense.

    2. Large populations seem to be correlated with fast language change. That’s the reason the nearest language to Old Norse is Icelandic, for example.

      The connected population of English speakers these days is immense.

      1. And that is before the people who use language change, for example because they want to bring about social change or to signal their virtue.

        1. –or on the cloud with an app? Wi-fi or fiber?

          (Have we confused the poor dear enough yet?(

  2. I really have no problem with the Black Bloc crew and their wannabes calling themselves anti-fascists. After all, Communists dislike competition.

  3. Several years ago, I read a book written in the 1930’s with a main character named Gaylord.

    In the course of the book, he asked a young girl (pre-teens) to call him “Gay”.

    And no, he was not homosexual. 😀

    1. Cary Grant, while wearing a woman’s robe in a scene in Bringing Up Baby, ad-libbed “Because I just went gay all of a sudden” when questioned about his attire. That was in 1938. OTOH, it went past the Hayes Office, so the meaning might not have been common knowledge. It might have been his leap at the word “gay” that gave it plausible deniability.

    2. I had a huge crush on a girl called Gay as a kid. And no, she wasn’t. I recall thinking it a wonderful, beautiful name at the time :-). Imagine how hard school would be for that young woman today!

    1. On Baen’s Bar, somebody got confused by a School Principal “banning” thongs.

      He was thinking the Principal was banning the underwear and wondered how the Principal would know what the children were wearing as underwear.

      Of course, we explained that “thongs” were another name for “flip-flops”. 😉

        1. Chuckle Chuckle

          Would you prefer “bum bag”? 😉

    2. I had a teacher in high school that was also a missionary. She left the US when when flip-flops were thongs, and then many years came back when thong meant something entirely different.

      1. I grew up where the only places you really could wear footwear that was open anywhere was indoors, or perhaps at the community pool. At least without contemplating a likely very painful price in rocks, plants that propagate by sticking themselves to you, various insects with stings, etc.

        Went to high school down in the flatlands – weirded me out more than a little bit when a girl I was barely acquainted with left the room to “get her thongs.” I grew up with “thong” meaning “bindings, usually made of leather.”

        Okay, just had to convince the spellchecker that “weird” is indeed a verb nowadays, besides an adjective, and almost never a noun. That’s another bit of vocabulary that I have to remember to put into its time context. Try telling someone these days something like “Well, being ignored by pretty girls just seems to be your weird.”

        1. Maybe it just stuck with me from when I was a child but I’ve always thought of them as zoris. Which I think is the Japanese name for them.

  4. The Language Police work on the principle of any totalitarian regime: create so many offenses that it’s impossible for the average person not to violate at least one of them eventually.

    1. It’s not necessarily the language police. I can think of perfectly innocent words that also had a disreputable slang meaning where the slang is now the first term to come to mind. Using them with the second in mind does no good if most readers think of the first. It doesn’t even have to be derogatory. “Directly,” as used in “I shall do it directly,” has come to take on a meaning “I’ll get around to it” in parts of the US instead of “I shall do it immediately.” A character saying “I shall do it directly” might be authentic for a time period, but has a different meaning now.

      1. I once had a sizeable business deal collapse when the other party said “just deal with it.”

        As it applied in the time and place I grew up, the phrase meant something like “I’ve done talking, f*** off and die.” Apparently in SoCal hippy-hop, it has come to mean “sounds good, take care of all the details for me.”

        The bad part about slang is when neither party realizes they’re using it…

        1. I loved that there were entire fart joke stories in Canterbury Tales. My English professor insisted that just because the word had endured from middle English, fart was still merely slang and not an English word. She was adamant that no slang would be allowed in her class.

    2. Another example. The term for carbonated non-alcoholic beverages varies across the US. In the 1970s we freaked out some rest stop attendants by asking for drinks, meaning non-alcoholic. They thought we meant alcoholic. It might still be the case, but while “tea” in the South means sweetened ice tea, but once you crossed the Mason-Dixon line you’d end up with a cup of hot, unsweetened, tea.

      1. Sodapop is just too long for lazy Americans so we shortened it. Depending where you are it is either soda or pop but never sodapop.

        1. Unless you’re in the South, where people will ask you what kind of coke you want, and you’ll say “Mountain Dew.”

      2. Sweet tea wasn’t a thing in (at least my parts of the South) until the early 1990s. You got unsweetened, period. If you wanted it sweet, you dumped in enough packets of sugar or sweetener until it took the edge off. You can’t really make unsweetened tea sweet after it cools off.

        I still remember the first time I had the option of ordering proper sweet tea at restaurant…

        1. Growing up, we always had sweetened ice tea at home.

          Eating out we had to add sugar or sweetener to ice tea.

          And yes, it is better to be able to order “sweet tea”. 😀

          1. We did too. But you couldn’t get it in restaurants until the 1990s.

            I did drink a fair amount of unsweetened tea at a local Thai restaurant. Whatever they used was actually quite good. It obviously wasn’t the usual “restaurant grade” stuff.

            Most of their kitchen staff were on work visas from Thailand. When dinnertime came for them, they’d often order exotic foreign food, delivered. For some reason I always found it riotously funny when the Domino’s guy walked through into the back with a stack of pizzas…

            1. What part of the South were you in? Deep South (AL, GA, MS, LA, AR), we had to specifically ask for unsweet until ~1994.

              1. At a TGI Friday’s in Doha, they bring a little pitcher of syrup so you can sweeten to taste. You can get much sweeter with syrup than granulated sugar because you are merely diluting pre-dissolved sugar. They were stunned that I drank unsweetened.

  5. I recall an Australian cartoonist being concerned about a joke disparaging American cheese only to be surprised that most Americans would agree with the disparagement.

    1. That’s because “American cheese” is most closely related to plastic.

      I grew up in California, and I thought the complete name for a certain kind of cheese was “Monterey Jack.” Turns out that you can have jack cheese from anywhere, but there was a sizable operation in Monterey making it.

      On a side note, if you ever are driving down the smaller highways in California and see a sign pointing at a cheesemaking operation, do stop. They usually have samples and some of them are wonderful. (They also all seem to have a small picnicking area with a koi pond. Not quite sure why that’s universal, but hey.)

    1. I think there is an element of anti-PC protest in buying many these products. ;-/. It’s one of the few ‘safe’ protests against the PC police.

      1. My Argentine friend complained 20 years ago that she couldn’t get Bimbo Bread in the US. It’s apparently the biggest brand their.

          1. no, Bimbo bread is bimbo bread, and isn’t the generic flavorless stuff that wonderbread is.

          2. Now that you mention it. I think she said Wonderbread was just like Bimbo

  6. well, technically, most of the antifa are anti-fascists… because apparently most of them are just communists.

      1. except there is apparently communist antifa and socialist antifa and anarchist antifa and anarcho0syndicalist antifa and…

    1. Um. When one goes to origin of the term ‘fascist’ it is derived from ‘a bundle of rods’ (fasces) and the concept that one rod could be broken, but a bundle could not. While it is fashionable to describe fascism as a far ‘right’ wing political grouping, when one looks at the core tenets of fascism – authoritarian (all authority beloning to government), centralizing power in the state, confiscation of property and profits, banning of non-party members holding positions of authority, as well as such things as a minimum wage, a progressive tax on capital, nationalization of the armament industries… it starts to look a lot more like something else. Fascism got its legs in a fight to maintain the current order – which is what the ‘antifa’ are trying to do.

      1. I realize that, but i also can see where things are headed if they continue to get violent. Many allowances will be suspended, and many basements will be emptied.

      2. Black shirts, closely matching American progressivism of the 1920s and 1930s, they are lucky they aren’t in Italy…

        1. They are brownshirts and just don’t know it. “Anti-fascists” acting exactly like fascists. There, I said it.

          1. Well you are just using a standard American dictionary. Don’t you understand that dictionaries are tools of white privilege?

            The offended classes demand that the only valid definitions are theirs which, of course, they change as is convenient.

            Of course theirs can’t be written down because that would be cultural appropriation.

          2. Rodolini’s Blackshirts. It’s all political theater, and the true root of the organization can be inferred.

      3. Mussolini was, of course, a long-time socialist, who stood high in the ranks of the Italian Socialist Party. He just added a bit of nationalism to the mix.

        The only real difference between fascism and communism was that in fascism the dictatorship was home-grown, rather than being “international” (i.e., a puppet regime of the Soviet Union).

        “National socialism”. It says so right there on the box.

        1. *sigh* I (briefly) got in a discussion with someone on the internet (I know, I know) who thought that there were no similarities between fascism and communism. As soon as I realized I was dealing with complete historical ignorance, I backed off and turned off notifications.

  7. The deliberate obfuscations bother me more than drift. Changing a definition of a word so that you can point at someone and shriek that they’re evil (racist, sexist, homophobic, Danish) because they got it wrong? Good god.

    I had a friend of a friend screech about how anyone of color could not be racist because you need power and privilege to be racist. I’d heard that (idiotic and racist) argument before but to see it in the ‘wild’ threw me a bit. Her proof? One dictionary had that as one of their definitions. All the other dictionaries didn’t matter, and the other meanings on the dictionary of her choice didn’t matter. All that mattered to her was that one (racist, idiotic, discriminatory) definition. A definition that seemed added on purpose by someone of her political affiliation at the dictionary to give ideological cover to her beliefs.

    Or gender suddenly not meaning what it’s always meant. It was co-opted to mean something different and now everyone who disagrees is threatened with being charged with a hate crime? The word ‘gender’ did not drift. It was pushed. They could have come up with a new term, (gendex, the way in which people express their gender), or used two words that actually mean what they now say the word ‘gender’ now means (gender expression). That would have been honest and made sense but they weren’t about being honest, they were about pushing an agenda.

    But a word that just moves? Kind of okay with that. For example; irregardless is a more useful word than regardless is out loud. Why? Because regardless flows pleasingly, but irregardless grates on its first syllable adding a negative element to the sound that translates well aloud if you mean it in a negative way. Yes, it’s wrong. Yes, it makes no real sense. But I wanted to analyze why it was gaining ground on the correct word and I think the negative sound adding a negative connotation is a reasonable explanation.


    1. My reply to a recent Facebook post using those new definitions to “explain” that—by definition—Blacks can’t be racist or Whites suffer racism, and that “there no such thing as reverse sexism or reverse racism”:

      Your argument works only if we cede to you the authority to redefine words like “racism”, “sexism”, and “oppression” to refer only to “sustained system[s] of social control and domination”.

      Rewriting the dictionary like that was quite unnecessary for the purposes of honest discussion: you could have left “racism” & “sexism” with their definitions of “prejudice and bias on the basis of race or sex”, and referred to “systemic racism/‌sexism” when you wanted to make your point. But honest discussion would not give you the power to un-define certain acts as racism or sexism, so you went for the Orwellian solution.

      But of course you’re doubly dishonest. Regardless of whether one uses the older dictionary definition of the —isms or your prefered academic jargon definitions, “reverse racism” & “reverse sexism” have obvious definitions: “prejudice and bias on the basis of race or sex, applied against those normally considered the dominant group”. According to the dictionary definitions, “reverse —ism” is a subtype of “—ism”; according to the academic jargon definitions it’s merely a similar-looking thing; by neither definition do you have the power to declare that these do not exist.

      (The original post was from a university “Men’s Center”. Looking into it, it appears “Men’s” is true in the same way the Yevsektsiya was “Jewish”.)

  8. In 1947, Roy Rogers could still play in a movie called The Gay Ranchero without offending. By 1981 Zorro: The Gay Blade definitely had the double entendre.

  9. There is a very noisy movement of late, as we here are all aware, to punish “cultural appropriation”. White men, such as myself, may not write about women, Indians, or other discernible groups. White women, it turns out, may not paint certain styles, and there is a bunch of very active enforcers out there to see that they are punished if they dare.


    I decline to cooperate with this farce at any level. My stories will go the way I want them to. I will use words as they are presently defined, if necessary I will provide a glossary at the back of the book. I will use slang from whatever language seems appropriate for the character speaking it. Characters will be whatever culture or race they are, I will use whatever parts of whatever culture I like to get the point across.

    I will make stuff up too. Because this is fiction and making stuff up is what it is all about. If I can’t make up a fake Chinese emperor or a fake King of the Water Buffalo, or a fake German fat guy for that matter, what the hell are we doing here?

    And if I’m writing about a guy traveling in time, it might behoove me to know what the meaning of “gay” used to be in the period I’m describing. “Prancing gaily” used to mean a completely different thing than it does presently. I’m sure all manner of people would be all sorts of put out if I used it with the original meaning in a story set in the 1940’s, for example.

    Too bad. They should go write their own stories, and not read mine. I’m not about to re-rig my brain just so they can be all comfy all the time.

    1. Since language is communication, words convey ideas. As George Carlin brilliantly demonstrated in “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” At one point he showed where something as simple as word order can greatly change meaning. The PC and SJW crowd can . . . well, some of them might get thrilled by the suggestion, so I won’t make it. It’s not bowing to their pressure, it’s a clear communication of ideas.

      It would be entirely innocent and correct to have a 19th Century British traveler camping out west to say “It is quite cold; throw another faggot on the fire, Reginald.” Now, what meaning first came to mind? A bundle of sticks used as fuel, or a slur? “It is quite cold; throw more wood on the fire, Reginald,” has the intended meaning even if we bent things a little.

      Think of it as translation. Which is more important: an exact rendering, or to clearly convey meaning? That’s not submission to the language police; that’s communication.

    2. A key feature of Anglo-American culture is cultural appropriation. It is in inherent part of our culture. Hell, we mug other cultures and steal their best ideas. I am a proud cultural appropriator, born and bred.

      1. …and if they still don’t like our “appropriation”, they can give up all the things they’ve appropriated from my culture. Start with the entire Industrial Revolution.

        When they give up their mechanized agriculture, cellular phones, internet, insulin, anesthesia, vaccines, automobiles, eyeglasses, trains, radio and TV, internal combustion, and the like, they can come back so I can laugh at them some more.

        They can go back to picking lice and poking seeds into the ground with sticks. Meanwhile, Western civilization’s footprints and abandoned cars are on the moon, its tire tracks are all over Mars, and Voyager 1 is 116 A.U. out, heading for deep space.

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