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.
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.
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.