The subtle nuances words have

Consider this: When we think, we really think only in words or something else that can be written, like musical notes, or mathematical or chemical equations. That means that if some people do not understand the shades of meaning between one word and another, they will be limited in their ability to understand concepts and options in everyday life.

Does this make any difference? I think it makes a great deal of difference. For example, I heard that there are more dialects in the world that have no difference in their languages between the words for “stranger” and for “enemy.” That means as a practical matter that anyone who is a stranger to those people is automatically their enemy. This in turn has probably resulted in lots of needless waste, fighting and lost opportunities.

Even people who do seemingly understand the shades of meaning among words often get too lazy in selecting the most appropriate one for their situation. For example, in my courtroom in many of what we call auto v. auto cases, most attorneys lazily fall back on the tired word “accident” to describe what occurred. But maybe this wasn’t really an accident. What if one of the drivers had been driving under the influence of alcohol or another mind-altering substance, or maybe were involved in some form of reckless driving? Then it could be concluded that this was not accidental, but intentional.

Think about it. What other words could a plaintiff’s attorney use instead of the word “accident” to set the tone for his attempt for a more serious recovery? How about the words “impact,” “collision,” “striking,” “careening into,” “slamming together” or “smash up”? Or from a defendant’s perspective in trying more to downplay the incident, the attorney could, when appropriate, use words like “bump,” “touching,” “grazing,” “coming together” or “coming into contact.”

Another example that everyone should be aware of is that there is a world of difference between the words “solve” and “resolve.” Most of us in the court system realize that you can only find “solutions” for things like mathematical equations. But problems involving human conduct mostly do not have solutions, only resolutions.

Therefore, when people lose an arm because of a defective piece of equipment, nothing can be done to “solve” that problem. Nothing will bring back their arms. All we can do is try to “resolve” the problem, usually by paying them some amount of money. Would most people prefer to forgo the payment and have their arm back? Absolutely yes. That would solve the problem, but that is simply not an option. So all we are left with is a proposed resolution.

The same thing is true regarding almost all other problems we encounter in our everyday lives. There are no solutions, as such. Only resolutions. But if people cannot understand the difference, or shades of meaning, between the two words, those people will unnecessarily submit themselves to extra pressure and frustrations by trying to solve an unsolvable problem.

The same analysis can be utilized for virtually any problem you may be involved with. People with a strong vocabulary understand more nuances, concepts and options. And those are the people who usually get ahead in life.

Look at the issue this way. If you can only discern the colors red, green, blue, yellow and black, you are going to be genuinely at a disadvantage when confronted by a person who, in addition to your colors, can also see, understand, appreciate and describe vermilion, turquoise, cobalt blue and magenta.

So do not lose the opportunity to work to increase your and your child’s vocabularies. This can be done by using vocabulary flash cards, playing word games like “Scrabble” or by simply going through the dictionary with your child, looking at a descriptive picture of a word, and trying to figure out what the word is.

In addition, parents should lose no opportunities to discuss with their children the shades of meaning among different words. (I use the word “among” instead of “between” because the latter compares only two objects, and the former compares more than two.) As another example, there is a difference between the phrase “Mary may climb a tree” and “Mary can climb a tree.” The first discusses permission, and the second discusses ability. There are similar nuances between the words “infer” and “imply,” “courtesy” and “respect” and taking a “risk” as opposed to a “gamble.”

A big distinction to be discussed with children for many reasons is the definition of what a “friend” is. Someone who encourages your child to ditch school, shoplift a CD from a store, smoke marijuana or speak disrespectfully to a teacher, parent, or anyone else is not a friend. Why? Because a friend has your child’s best interest at heart. So someone who would encourage such antisocial behavior may be an acquaintance, or former friend, but not actually a friend.

So we think in words. That means that people’s vocabularies limit or broaden their ability to understand and deal with the world around them. Therefore, a strong vocabulary will not only be helpful for your children on the Scholastic Aptitude Test or on the high school debate team, it will also make a significant difference in how successful they will be in business, their social relationships and almost anything else.

And besides, when it comes down to it, becoming aware of the shades of meaning among words is actually fun. Try it and you’ll see.

Judge Jim Gray (Ret.)