Roger Barbee: What’s in a word?

Roger Barbee

Roger Barbee

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”
— Mark Twain

Yesterday morning I heard an advertisement for a forthcoming interview on The Today Show in which the interviewee, Vince Vaughn, says to describe his acting, “I try to be naturalistic.” I cringed on hearing his use of naturalistic. I am sure that he wants to be seen as a natural, not one who imitates nature. By using the wrong word, Vaughn describes himself as the opposite of how he desires to be seen by his fans. His mistake.

Words matter. Yes, our language changes and evolves as we use it. The greatest writer of all time, William Shakespeare, invented over 1,700 words (such as bedroom), and we, through our daily use or misuse of language, change it. An example is the use of the word “hopefully,” and its gradual acceptance as a modifier in a sentence such as, “Hopefully, we will win the big game.”

In order to serve our needs, our language needs to have a certain elasticity to it. These examples and Vaughn’s misuse of “naturalistic” are rather mundane and harmless. However, words carry power and their misuse can cause problems. I am thinking of the unfortunate newscaster who recently used the word “jigaboo” without knowing what it meant. That young woman learned a valuable lesson concerning the use of language.

The other example happened years ago in a Washington, D.C., government agency. A white supervisor, in trying to instruct his workers, used the word “niggardly.” He knew the word, but his African-American workers did not, and he was wrongly punished for using a racial word. It has nothing to do with race, but I imagine the supervisor wishes he had used a less charged word, such as “stingy,” and his staff wished for better understanding of words. For him and the newscaster, a poor choice of word and dire consequences.

These modern-day examples of the evolution of our language, while grating on my ear at times, are results of our use of language to communicate. I acquiesce to the changing times of language, such as “quote” used as a noun as well as a verb; however, …

When I read or hear the following to describe someone who is missing, I am concerned about what our misuse of our language says about us. To say or write, “She went missing” is as illogical and lazy as any misuse can possibly be. “Went” is a transitive verb which may or may not have an object, but “missing” can’t be its object because it is an adjective, not a noun or pronoun. So, the sentence as spoken or written is an example of our indifference to our language or an example of how we are trying to change our language regardless of its rules.

But, if we can lazily break one rule, why not break them all and let our language be whatever the speaker or writer wants it to be? (Remember the Tower of Babel). I read an article last week in which figures of speech were called parts of speech. Now, a metaphor is a figure of speech just as is a simile and others such as personification and hyperbole, but none are parts of speech — those tell us how a word is used in a sentence, such as noun or verb or adjective. Yet the writer continued on in the article lumping all figures of speech as metaphors and parts of speech.

While I applaud creativity such as the inventing of new words, and, as one who has made my share of errors, empathize when a poor choice is made, I can’t understand the disregard for rules that govern our language. To write that a metaphor or simile is a part of speech is just wrong. They, along with others such as personification, hyperbole, and oxymoron are figures of speech. Also, to lump them all together as metaphors is wrong. A metaphor is a metaphor, and a simile is a simile. They are similar, but as Twain points out, quite different. One should not call a metaphor a simile any more than he or she should call a steer a bull or a cow a steer. Related? Yes, but different animals not to be confused through laziness or uniformed intelligence.

Words matter, and they carry weight and influence and understanding. Young Juliet asked, “What’s in a name?,” and discovered to her sadness that much is in a name — or word.

Roger Barbee is a retired educator who lives in Edinburg with his wife Mary Ann, four dogs and five cats. Email him at

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