Friday, February 09, 2007

Two Words, Four Meanings

Every once in a while, a circumstance will arise in which a bunch of faculty members, who all know each other, will end up at the same place at the same time, through pure chance. Such a circumstance arose today. It was an extremely intellectually stimulating, friendly and funny meeting of minds. I was fortunate enough to be there.

At this little gathering, one of the more amusing topics turned out to be misunderstandings. Some of the people present, although native English speakers, are not quite speakers of the same kind of English as some of the other people present. It turns out that different linguistic sub-groups of English language speakers use the same terms to mean opposite things. This can lead to misunderstandings.

The first misunderstanding occurred over the meaning of the term 'funky'. This term appeared initially in the sentence "I am feeling funky." It turned out, after a bit of confusion, that the speaker intended to convey the message that they were not feeling quite right, in a negative way. They were feeling a bit 'out of sorts', or 'off color'. However, it turned out that the other linguistic group thought that this sentence meant something like 'I'm feeling cool', or 'I've got my groove on', or something else, with quite positive connotations. Of course, this was almost the exact opposite of the sentiment that was intended. (There were probably all sorts of wild Griceian Implicatures going on too, but the basic misunderstanding was funny enough).

Thus, this turned the topic to other similar confusions that could arise between the two linguistic sub-groups. One participant, who is from the non-dominant linguistic group involved in this conversation, admitted to having a similar problem with the term 'homely'. Apparently, where they grew up, this word means something like 'comfortable', or 'relaxed' and has no negative associations with it. It turns out this individual had innocently used this term to a close friend, who was not from his linguistic sub-group, with rather unfortunate consequences. They were shocked to learn that to use this term about a person, for the other linguistic sub-group was a rather severe insult! This had not been their intention at all. In fact, what they had intended was almost the diametric opposite!

As I walked back from the impromptu gathering, cup of coffee in hand, I chuckled a little to myself about the vagaries of language. However, I was suddenly struck by the wisdom of the old adage that one should be 'Careful for what you wish for'. Suddenly, this appears doubly wise (if that makes any sense). If one is in one part of the World and wishes to be 'funky and homely', one is wishing to be kind of cool and relaxed. However, if one was to make the same wish somewhere else, one would be wishing to feel and look bad. I concluded that it would be wise to wish for nothing in the near future!

The CP

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