Dangerous Words, Slippery Meanings

Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press. Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust. Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels. She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband who is a law professor. Where the Bones Are Buried, the fifth book in the series, is in bookstores now . You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at http://www.jeannematthews.com

The author Edward St. Aubyn believes that reading is a collaborative enterprise.  The writer’s words merge with the imagination and experience of the reader and the meaning is transformed.  The reader may come away with an understanding close to what the writer intended.  Or she may find something entirely different in the text.  It’s a tricky alchemy.

In 1729, Jonathan Swift offered “A Modest Proposal” to prevent Irish children from becoming a burden to their parents.  He suggested that the poor sell their babies as food to aristocrats.  “A young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old…most delicious and nourishing, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled.”  His intention was to call attention to the terrible disparity of wealth between rich and poor.  Unfortunately, readers didn’t get the satire.  Swift was decried as a savage, a cannibal, and a maniac.

When Randy Newman wrote the song “Short People Got No Reason to Live,” he intended it as an ironic comment on the silliness of prejudice.  A large number of outraged short people didn’t hear it that way.  He received death threats and Little People of America picketed his concerts.

Sinclair Lewis grew despondent when readers misread his novel, The Jungle.  The book detailed the disgusting conditions endured by wage laborers in the Chicago meat packing industry.  But instead of being outraged by the hardships and injustice faced by workers, the public was outraged by the lack of sanitation in how their meat was produced.  The selfishness of the Capitalist system, which Lewis had sought to satirize, resulted in an almost perfect irony.  The self-interested public cared not a fig for the plight of the workers.  They cared only about the wholesomeness of the food they put in their mouths.

Definitions of irony cover a wide range of variation, but it always involves some form of misinterpretation.  Generally speaking, irony is a contradiction between what is said (or written) and what is understood.  It can be intentional or unintentional.  But literary theorist Stanley Fish argues that there is no such thing as a “correct” interpretation. The reader is the ultimate judge.  She creates the meaning.

A writer may think he’s made his point so clearly that it couldn’t possibly be missed or misconstrued.  But authorial authority is irrelevant, immaterial, and ultimately irrecoverable.  The reader brings her own notions.  Depending on her mindset, she may respond enthusiastically to a character’s facetious or irreverent remarks or she may take umbrage.  In the worst case, she may be so incensed that she demands the book be banned.  The author’s disclaimers of malice are futile.

Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is one of the most frequently banned books.  It satirizes the attitudes of 19th Century Southern society, especially issues of race and slavery.  Twain was fiercely opposed to slavery and scathing in his portrayal of the casual cruelty of whites toward blacks.  But because of his use of racial slurs, his meaning is clouded by controversy and some readers find the book offensive.  Satire is a double-edged sword.  In the 1970s, many television viewers saluted the “Archie Bunker” show for bringing heightened social and cultural awareness to matters of race and gender.  Others claimed that it legitimized bigotry.  It’s all a matter of perception.

The British technology and opinion website The Register suggested a color-coded way to distinguish the serious from the tongue-in-cheek.  Droll insinuation would be indicated in sage green; mild sarcasm in burgundy; smarminess in ultramarine; irony in lavender; flippancy in sunflower orange; biting sarcasm in red; and humor liable to give offense would be “an insipid yellow readable only when highlighted.”  The system sounds foolproof, but I’m not so sure it would work.  How can the reader know whether the writer is being sarcastic or slyly sincere when he puts his remarks in burgundy?  As Samuel Goldwyn remarked, once you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made.

The proliferation of e-mail misunderstandings has led to the use of emoticons to guide the reader to a truer understanding of the writer’s meaning.  Electromyography facial studies have shown that with emoticons to indicate ironic intention, there’s less frowning and more smiling.  “Short people got little hands and little eyes, they walk around telling great big lies.”  😀  Just kidding.

“…Let [the babes] suck plentifully in the last month so as to render them plump and fat for a good table.”  😉  Wink, wink.

I predict that novels of the future will come complete with a color chart and an emoji inserted after every dangerous word and slippery meaning.  It’s all about being properly understood, right?


2 thoughts on “Dangerous Words, Slippery Meanings

  1. On behalf of Fran Stewart—

    What a delightful blogpost, Lelia. Jeanne hit it square on the head. I particularly enjoyed the “color-coding,” aside from the fact that it would most readers (especially me) nuts.

    I couldn’t leave a comment on the blog — WordPress doesn’t seem to like me.

    — Fran

    Fran Stewart


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.