Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, "It means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is,"said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master - that's all."
(Lewis Carroll - Through the looking glass.)
Regular readers of my witterings are undoubtedly familiar with this quote. I was reminded of it yesterday - along with this one,
"I know you think you understood what I said but I am not sure you realise that what you heard is not what I meant."
I don't know where the second one comes from. I had it on a card somewhere once and I have not forgotten it.
People hear what they want to hear but that does not mean they are listening.
"But s/he said that!" is an all too common cry. It was said to me on Twitter yesterday but trying to explain in 140 characters is all too difficult so I will try to put it here and hope that the stranger who remonstrated with me will read it.
What I was trying to tell him was that you can say a word without using it yourself. I can say "F.... is a swear word." That does not mean I am swearing. I am making a statement about a word. I can say "The word "nigger" is considered to be unacceptable and incorrect." It does not mean I have used the word. It is not a word I would use.
I can also say that "X is considered to be..." but that does not mean I support or deny "X". I can go on to support or qualify a statement but merely making it in that way does not mean I agree with it or am stating it to be a fact about global warming, genocide, green hair, dogs being lazy or anything else. I have said the words but I have not used them until I support or qualify them.
Of course the media sees things differently. Their job is about making headlines. If someone says something that is seen as potential headline material then the media will take advantage of it. This is why we need to be careful about the way we "read" or "hear" the media.
I sometimes write a "letter to the editor" for our local or national papers. A short letter can take longer than one of these blog posts because I tend to put things very carefully indeed. There are still people who will willingly and knowingly misinterpret things I have said. It makes them look more foolish than me. And then there are the people who will bail me up in the street or at the library or in a meeting and say, "I want to argue with you but the way you put it..."
When someone says that I like to think I have used words rather than merely said them.
I know there will be people who read this and say, "You're splitting hairs. No such difference exists. If you say something then you have used the word(s)."