Making the World More Understandable
Does that Word Make You Happy, Sad, or Mad?

Does that Word Make You Happy, Sad, or Mad?

One of the things I do for editing clients is question their word choices.

My best example was when I convinced a client that she didn’t want to use the word “manifesto” on her website – even though she was using it correctly. I find that people’s brains tend to go to one of two places when they hear “manifesto”: communists or the Unabomber. As we were discussing neither of these topics, she agreed that the word had to go.

Just because the definition of a word fits a sentence, does not mean that the connotation of the word does. And connotation is what matters.

One that I come across frequently is “compel.” Almost every definition of “compel” includes the word “force” – a term of aggression. To me, “compel” has a negative connotation.

Then we have “compelling.” Many people think of the second dictionary entry when they hear “compelling”:

“having a powerful and irresistible effect; requiring acute admiration, attention, or respect”

This is not an aggressive definition.

Now, here’s my issue: if you want someone to feel that “irresistible effect” and take some desired action, you compel them. But, I don’t want to compel someone to do something, nor do I want to be compelled to do something. I can positively think of a speech, say, as compelling and it could inspire me to take action. Yet, when someone talks about presenting something so as to compel the audience to take action, my hackles go up.

(Yes, I know more than one person who uses “compel” in this manner. I tend to just smile and grit my teeth.)

Is your word choice this evocative? Well, maybe not THIS evocative.

I used to work with a woman who attached “high maintenance” to the word “elegant.” That was a new connotation for me since I’m more likely to apply “elegant” to nature than to a person. As my then-colleague does image consulting, it is not too surprising that we ended up agreeing to disagree.

Words have power. And specific words can evoke powerful emotions. The question is: are you evoking the right emotion?

Now, there will always be situations you cannot win – especially when someone is traumatized by a word used incorrectly. (“You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.”) Regardless, knowing what a word actually means, as well as how it has been used (or abused) in society, will do wonders in creating the image you want people to see when they read your writing.

Admittedly, some of the connotations I have with words are not appropriate for my clients. That’s why, when questioning a word choice, I try to say something along the lines of, “this is where my mind went…. Is that what you were aiming for? Or, does your audience use this word differently?”

As an editor, I consider it part of the job to ask about word choices. Unfortunately, writers don’t always take it well. That “manifesto” debate I had took far longer than I thought it would.

-Lorrie Nicoles

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