In our household, we often have energetic arguments about colour. I don’t mean that any of us is colour-blind; we can all distinguish between red and green. However, I often say that something is blue when my husband and son think it is green and my husband has a pair of grey trousers that he insists on calling ‘brown’, which doesn’t help me when I’m trying to help him to find them! My daughter-in-law speaks a glorious palette of colours that can nevertheless leave my son mystified.
What I’d dearly like to know is whether each of our optic nerves registers colours differently, or whether we are actually seeing the same colour but using different words to describe it. Is the problem sensual or semantic?
As a writer, I am acutely aware that the same word resonates with different people in quite different ways. A client (from the day-job) was once very offended when I said that some research that he had undertaken was ‘robust’. It is, of course, a term commonly used to indicate that research has been carried out properly, but he thought that it smacked of rudeness.
I acknowledge that, when it comes to particular words, I myself have many preferences and prejudices. For example, I’ve never been much of a fan of the words ‘beauty’ and ‘beautiful’; to me, they carry undertones of full-blown roses, enjoying their last blast of loveliness before withering. I used to like ‘lovely’, but it has been debased by its idiomatic use for everything from ‘nice’ meals out to individual character and personality, especially if the person in question has died. If the deceased was a woman, a newspaper reporter usually manages to dredge up a friend or acquaintance who will describe her as having been ‘lovely’ or, even more frequently, ‘bubbly’, which to me always conjures up an image of her chained to the sink, up to her elbows in soap-suds (‘Hands that do dishes…’). And I think that ‘pleasant’ is a really nastily bland word, although, in its case, I know that I associate it with someone who turned out to be other than he seemed; it was one of his favourite epithets.
Words associated with crime hold particular connotations and resonances for me. ‘Murder’ is a very grand word, sometimes too lofty for the often grubby and chaotic crimes that are committed in its name. ‘Kill’ and ‘killer’ have more immediacy and strike more terror into the heart. Similarly, while ‘murdered’ conjures up the image of a lifeless body, a verb that conveys how the murder has been committed evokes the pity and horror of knowing how the victim suffered before he or she died: used within context, ‘shot’, ‘stabbed’ and ‘poisoned’ can be almost unbearable words, whilst ‘liquidate’ strikes with the fear of knowing that a ruthless and unstoppable mind has been at work… and is still out there. Any description associated with blood and bleeding makes me want to hide behind the sofa, metaphorically speaking, and, while I sometimes have to create blood-stained scenes myself, I try to keep them to a minimum. I am not a blood-and-guts writer from conviction, but I am also not one, I acknowledge, out of squeamishness.
When I think of how words have evolved in the English language, sometimes within small communities largely cut off from the wider world for hundreds of years, it amazes me that, despite the differences in perception of shades of meaning which we all experience, 90% of the time we manage to communicate the same thing with extraordinary efficiency. The remaining, stubbornly ambiguous 10%, consisting of differences in interpretation, different approaches to innuendo, and the bending of the language to just this side of breaking-point to wrest from it a new image of startling freshness and truth, should be cherished. That is what makes us different from each other; it allows us to be surprised and delighted by writers who deploy our language in ways which we ourselves should never have considered.
Let us be nice in our use of words!