Sunday, March 29, 2009


A post at Language Log about "private meanings": how individuals may have their own understandings of the meanings of particular words. In my case, the one I can think of offhand is "mediocre," which I long believed to mean "of the lowest possible quality," because of how my father uses the word, with such contempt for something that is "of moderate or low quality."


Frank said...

Silli (well, Silvester), a friend of mine from Munich, used to think the German word "pikant", which means "savoury" or "spicy", was another word for "delicious" and only used for gourmet foods. So he was always really irritated when somebody was munching on a kebab and said that it was quite "pikant".

Andrew Shields said...

Frank, for some reason that reminds me of my ongoing dispute with Andrea about what constitutes "pink." She very often says something is pink that I would call purple!

Dave King said...

I do remember as a boy thinking I'd like to be a surveyor when I grew up, because I thought it meant just looking.

Anonymous said...

One of my babies seemed to think that her
name (at least when spoken by me, with an
exclamation point at the end) meant "NO!"
I remember how terrible it made me feel,
when I first caught on to her interpretation.
She was less than a year old at the time ...
and I was pretty young myself, but that's
not a very good excuse, is it?

-- dhsh

Anonymous said...

I think I'd like to be a surveyor, too, Dave!

This topic also reminds me of some words that I and my cousin first learned by mis-READING them. Mine were from Gulliver's Travels, which I was given as a birthday present when I was just seven "because she is such a good reader." My errors were in pronunciation. I read "izlund" where the page said "island" and I pronounced "vegetables" with four syllables and a long "a" ... Both of these pronunciations sounded enough different than the 'normal' way these words are spoken, that I didn't even see/hear the connection (though I DID get most if not all of the meaning just fine. That is, from the context in the story, I knew that an "izlund" was a smallish body of land surrounded by water, and that "veh-juh-tay-buls" were either edibles on tables, or tables for edibles).

My cousin's mis-read word is much funnier, and it has persisted over six decades as part of our extended family's private vocabulary: BED-RAGGLED means, well, bedraggled upon arising (pre-dating the synonymous phrase "bed hair" by half a century or so!)

Andrew, shall I also post some of the baby-talk words which "stuck" in our family vocabulary?

-- dhsh

Donald Brown said...

I always feel like a schoolmarm at these conversations: 'private meanings' equal erroneous definitions. Look it up!

Of course I'm sympathetic to people who determine the meaning of a word from context but then are slightly wrong about its real meaning. My main failing in that regard is pronunciation. So many words in my vocabulary came to me from reading and I never heard those words spoken. But I balk at calling those mispronunciations 'personal pronunciations.'

As to pink, Andrew, is it possible Andrea has slight color blindness? As someone who does (mine is red/green), I can tell you that I often don't see the red in purple, so it looks more or less blue. Maybe Andrea doesn't see the blue in the purple she calls pink. Pink, by definition, is simply a lighter hue of red, there's no other color mixed in.

Andrew Shields said...

Mom, post all you like! The same thing happened to me with "island"!

Don, it's not just Andrea; it has to do with the specific meaning of "pink" in German. We're taught that the English "pink" is "rosarot," but the Germans also use the word "pink," which refers to something closer to "hot pink," with a nice dose of magenta thrown in.

Tony Williams said...

My wife deliberately pronounces 'pronunciation' as 'pronounciation' to annoy me.

Jonathan said...

Apparently Nabokov, even after he had become quite a good writer in English, thought that the word "fastidious" meant the same as the French "fastidieux," or annoying, bothersome (rather than excessively meticulous and fussy).

My daughter when she was little thought that "wasting" something meant "using up the last remaining supply" of something. So if you drank up the last of the orange juice and through away the carton, you had "wasted" the orange juice.
We could never explain the mistake to her, because the meaning was just close enough and corresponded to her experience of the word as others used it.