I’ve been really thinking about words lately. (Rhetorically analyzing them somewhat, in fact, but that’s not the point.) Words are so, so, so important – if you didn’t already know.
That is the sole reason why we have synonyms.
People complain about the excess of the English language (or any language, for any matter – German uses Karotten or Möhren for “carrots,” and weil or denn in lieu of “because,” and more) but think about it: if you had to use the same word for something every time you talked about it, how swell would that be?
How good would it be? How nice? How great? How many words can you replace “swell” with in this sentence alone? The answer to the question is still “no, not _______” but think of the different meanings each question has with each word. If you were to rate those synonyms on a scale from mild to extreme, would they all rate the same, or differently? To me, it would go: good, nice, great, swell.
Imagine this: You ask someone how her day was, and get one of these responses:
Which one do you read as most snappy? As most lazy? As most positive?
To me, the answers to those questions would be: Fine, Good, Swell. One word. Relatively the same dictionary definition, all common answers, but they all have different meanings. Connotations make ALL the difference. And that’s what differentiates good writers from excellent ones; the ones who convey their meanings most accurately by choosing the best formulations of words (plus best organizations and styles; but words are the building blocks I am focusing on).
(Another great example is a quotation from Anchorman: “I have many leather-bound books and my apartment smells of rich mahogany.” Leather-bound and mahogany are “intellectual” words, aren’t they? They sound refined and old. Wise, yes? Had Mr. Burgundy said old books and maple wood in replacement of leather-bound and mahogany, it would not be as funny. See? AP Lang can teach you humor, too.)
I bring all this academic stuff up because I’ve been encountering some discomfort with the word “vegan.” “Vegetarian,” even. I watch people cringe, inwardly or outwardly, when the word is used. Just today, my English teacher was speaking about some annoying girl from her days in college that had blue hair and piercings and yelled at people for not recycling…and was vegan. The class laughed and groaned together. Now, I know the reason why this girl annoyed people was not because she didn’t eat animal products, but because she was obsessive – which is a turn-off in most people’s books, including mine – yet my teacher, who TAUGHT me how to observe rhetorical word choices, herself used the word “vegan.” If she had left it out, we would have still got that this girl annoyed her, but the inclusion of “vegan” completed the picture of obsession.
Why? Because “vegan” tends to conjure obsessive, annoying, snobbish behavior – after all, we refuse a lot of food offered to us by choice, not by medical reason, usually; but when put that way, it doesn’t justify our choices, it makes us look like snobs. I am very, very afraid of this image because I dislike those kinds of people just as much or more than the next person. (People telling me what to do, expecting me to know the facts or reasons why? Unsavory.) The problem, I think, lies in that the word “vegan” doesn’t explain why we choose to eat the way we do, it just means we set restrictions on a seemingly “regular” or “normal” diet. It doesn’t explain that we truly believe we are making a difference not only on the vast wasting of land/resources/animals used in raising livestock for food, but also on our own personal health, and environmental health. Trust us, it is not “fun” rejecting people’s food and being criticized for making a personal decision based on our morals and health. In theory, it is a vote we are casting, since we all have a right to our own opinion, and you don’t have to agree with our ideals, nor should that discourage us from being friends. But, please: don’t assume things about our personality based on how we eat.
The infamous phrase “You are what you eat” should be tweaked a bit. If “eat’s” meaning was changed to mean “the information you gobble down without thinking twice about,” then “you are what you eat” is true. “You are how you act” would also be an accurate substitution.
I’ve been uncomfortable with my vegan-ish status for a while, and I couldn’t pin down a reason why. I think this here is the reason why – I’ve been proud of my decisions and my healthy choices, but I still felt weird telling people about it. It’s because I don’t have an unmarked word to use.
I recently just told someone flat out, “I don’t eat meat or dairy” without any special terminology. It was fantastically to the point. I think I will be using that now. Because I really am not a vegan: I don’t steer clear of all animal products (eggs and my cat’s food – for my cat, of course), I eat honey, I’ve sat on leather couches, I accidentally kill bugs, I don’t march in parades or hand out flyers…I do condone my friends when they avoid recycling, but I don’t go out of my way to reprimand people I don’t know. I just don’t eat meat or dairy, and believe in making logical, environmentally- and health-conscious decisions.
Plus, there’s no ring to “vegan.” I’ve heard people pronounce it “vay-gen”; I pronounce it “vee-gin.” It just sounds uncomfortable. Words’ sounds contribute to their connotations, too. For instance, I like the word “lackadaisical” even though it hasn’t got the most positive definition. I like it’s cadence, it’s whimsy. It even sort of has the word “daisy” in it! (Flowers have connotations, too; compare roses and daisies as a gift from a man to a woman – what does each mean? We all know.) For future reference, my favorite word is “swanky,” followed by other goodies like, “gossamer,” “regime,” “austere,” and “sinuous.”
So, in conclusion: THINK about your words! Make good decisions. We tend to stick with the same words day after day, and they lose their meanings – if used in every situation, they aren’t as specific anymore, and they become lazy. Don’t use good words, use the BEST POSSIBLE words. Clear, rich, and meaningful words. That doesn’t mean long and academic vocabulary words. Just words that mean what you want them to mean.