The Weight of the Word

I respect words; what they mean and how they should be used.

That was pretty much my entire spiel for my job interview at the Manila Times. I passed but they were only looking for a correspondent at the time and pay for that does not correspond with my need for money to stay alive. Also, I had already been hired as a reporter for Sun.Star and, as most recently-hired employees, took their code of ethics and other motherhood statements seriously.

But the basic sentiment remains. I respect the power that words have, and believe they should be used properly. Doing that, of course, requires learning what words mean, and could mean.

Tower of Babel, M.C. Escher (1928) (Wikipedia)

This usually means I am the last on my team to send in stories because I often have to check words I am not sure about.  It took me half an hour, for example, to look up “behest,” learn what it meant in the context of a loan, and then try to explain that without slipping into tautology. It is often worth it.

The difference between the right word and almost the right word–as I like to quote my third-year high school Geometry textbook quoting Mark Twain–is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.

Finding the right word isn’t always that easy, though. The clash between the Philippine Army and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Basilan earlier this month is one example. In the aftermath of the encounter–and with reports coming in of more ambushes and encounters that left Army men dead–others in the media called it a massacre and a blood bath.

Although both describe the firefight that killed 19 soldiers (many of whom reportedly had their pleas for mercy ignored by the MILF) well, the words tend to inflame. I went the other way and began describing it as an “incident,” which, in hindsight, was playing it too safe.

What, after all, is an incident? Some diplomat snubbing another is an incident.   Actors engaging in drunken fisticuffs is an incident. In some offices, a lost stapler is an incident, and requires the filing of an incident report. By resorting to so bland a word, I had downgraded the deaths (and reported mutilation) of 19 brave men. I had unwittingly made their deaths incidental.

3 responses to “The Weight of the Word

  1. Did you ever wonder why a sharp tongue and a blunt tongue both say hurtful things when they should technically be opposites? Good post, and sorry about your unsharpened, unblunt tongue. Try wordnik.com; it’s a playground.

  2. Pingback: Watch your words | Mister de Santos·

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