Writerly Confessional

Sometimes it’s not a bad idea to pause to take stock of what words we actually understand and those that while we might have a hazy idea about their meanings, their actual definitions are often murky guesses at best.

I often see students employing the fairly rudimentary suspects within paper, after paper, after paper, and so on. Most commonly, their are the egregious examples of there’s that can butcher a sentence, and distract you’re reader from the intended purpose of whatever message your trying to relate. Point proven.

Before continuing, I should note that in no way do I mean to disparage my students’ writing abilities. On the contrary, I’m sure I’ve made/will make plenty of my own mistakes within this post. It’s easy as a professor to sometimes lose sight of how soul-crushingly terrifying it can be to have to ask for a definition in class or be called out in a paper by a tri-circle of bloody, blotty ink around a misused term. It’s easy as a professor-person to simply self-correct in the comfort of one’s own darkness.

In this sense I suppose that this is a gift, or payback, or simply an admission of understanding about how learning and growing starts by admitting that you don’t know everything, and that such confusion is perfectly fine as long as you’re willing to continue learning.

Anyway, there are the less obvious words whose meaning and usage are perhaps much more confusing and or unclear. Words that I semi-often hear on talk radio and read in news columns that have always – more or less – eluded me in their true meaning.

Should I simply look up these definitions to save myself the embarrassment? Duh. Yet here we are.  And I think this is an interesting exercise to compare what I’ve been able to cobble together out of the context of hearing and seeing these terms over and over and over again with whatever the hell they’re really supposed to mean. Surely my versions must be hilariously off-base in comparison with the correct “answers”, right?

Well, luckily for you, below I have listed ten words that I’ve spent far too much time wondering what in the hell they actually mean: first, my own patchwork interpretation. Then, what I’ve been able to find via some minor, long-overdue research. And finally, how to console my Joeisms with reality.

Ten Words I Should Probably Look Up But Have Always Been Too Lazy To (And Their Definitions):

“Zeitgeist” –

  • My definition: A fancy/academic way of identifying a cultural trend or ideal? Often heard said by fancy/academic folk on NPR who toss around the term as if we all obviously know this one. Also derived from German slang meaning “some sort of half-ghost, half-ghoul creature”
  • Actual definition: “the general intellectual, moral, and cultural climate of an era.” – m-w.com
  • Closeness: Still think it sounds like a pretty baller German ghost-ghoul too.

“Flotsam” –

  • My definition: Shit (stuff) that floats.
  • Actual definition: Law. Such part of the wreckage of a ship or its cargo as is found floating on the surface of the sea.” – oed.com
  • Closeness: Fancy term for boat shit (stuff) that floats.

“Jetsam” –

  • My definition: Shit (stuff) that floats quickly?
  • Actual definition: “[Law.] Goods discarded from a ship and washed ashore; spec. such material thrown overboard in order to lighten a vessel.” – oed.com
  • Closeness: Well, if your ship is sinking, you’d probably want to jettison your shit (stuff) quickly rather than leisurely.

“Deus ex machina” –

  • My definition: Cool steampunk phrase when a pair of robots fall in love and together rebel against their enslaving human overlords.
  • Actual definition: “A power, event, person, or thing that comes in the nick of time to solve a difficulty; providential interposition, esp. in a novel or play.” – oed.com
  • Closeness: So…no robobellion? I actually kind of already knew this one, but I still think my definition wins.

“Bae” –

  • My definition: Too many definitions to define.
  • Actual definition: Too many definitions to list. So click here for the list.
  • Closeness: All I can say with confidence is that my french fries have not, are not, and never will be bae.

“Literally” –

  • My definition: I actually know this one too, but it gets tricky here as I can literally say (oops, I mean, write) that a great many people literally don’t know what “literally” literally means.
  • Actual definition: “In a literal, exact, or actual sense; not figuratively, allegorically, etc.” – oed.com
  • Closeness: I am literally right on this one, literally according to the definition.

“Happenstance” –

  • My definition: Sounds like a fancy coincidence. I once wrote in a story about a “randomstance” which my professor at the time loved given the context. Is a “happenstance” a “coincidence” that is more likely? Like how a “randomstance” is less common? Aren’t these all just “coincidences”?
  • Actual definition: “Something that happens by chance, an event or circumstance considered to be influenced by chance; chance, luck. Also: a coincidence.” – oed.com
  • Closeness: And I requote: “Also: a coincidence” ….

“Moniker” –

  • My definition: Sounds like “monkier” when I read it. I know it’s not. But still, gotta be more entertaining than whatever the real definition is.
  • Actual definition: “A name (esp. an assumed one); a nickname, epithet.” – oed.com
  • Closeness: Wait, but what if I’m acting monkier than my brother?

“Ennui” –

  • My definition: A race of elves from the first age of the Lord of the Rings.
  • Actual definition: “The feeling of mental weariness and dissatisfaction produced by want of occupation, or by lack of interest in present surroundings or employments.” – oed.com
  • Closeness: I’m starting to feel a tad ennui from this blog post…

“Raft” –

  • My definition: I keep seeing this used in news articles. Like “a new raft of sanctions”. I always thought that a raft was haphazard little boat one drifted on, but I guess it’s now an abstractish term too?
  • Actual definition: “A number of logs, planks, etc., fastened together in the water for transportation by floating” or “A large amount; a lot of something.”
  • Closeness: So, both? Yeah, not confusing at all.

Well, we made it. And will you look at that? Still kicking/wording! I’m interested to hear if you have any other interpretations, definitions, jokes-at-my-expense, etc. based on these words/phrases – or others! Please feel free to comment with such translations below! Never stop questioning; never stop learning.

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2 thoughts on “Writerly Confessional

  1. Zeigeist- also a rad Black Sabbath song.

    Entertaining read, Joe. I like your understanding of “deus ex machina” significantly better. Also great reminder to us scholarly types that we’re not omnipotent.

    • Language – perhaps particularly English – is a fluid, flexible form of expression. Anyone who says they know everything about anything is probably either wrong or lying, definitely particularly in regards to grammar. I’ve seen rules I’ve known were “correct” do the proverbial 180°, so it’s always good to remain questioning and ask, “Why, any one given rule, word, phrase, etc.? Why?”

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