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SEMANTICS

August 16, 2017

You’ve all heard the well-worn phrase, some would call it a cliché, “apples/oranges.” In other words, some would call it one thing, others would call it something else, while they both mean roughly the same thing.

In this world of political correctness, things can get a bit sticky in that regard, especially when it comes to racially charged, sexually charged, or culturally charged words. On the other hand, there are those that are obsessed with perfection and definition.

As writers, we use and play with words. We communicate to our readers. However, since we’re trying to reach as wide an audience as possible, our goal is usually to piss off as few of them as possible.

We can’t possibly get into the heads of every complete stranger that might pick up one of our books. They’ll read along and love it until they come to a screeching halt because they run across some obscure, semantical word or phrase, used in total ignorance to their experience and/or culture. It somehow offends them.

What to do?

More than likely, not a thing.

On the other hand, just being aware of semantics and having a reasonable knowledge may…and I mean may go a long way to avoiding the issue, if you even bother to worry about it.

IT TAKES ALL KINDS

Some people take offense to anything and everything.

Yup. Can’t be helped. Move on, keep on writing and forget about them. It’s inevitable. You’re going to say something to piss them off. They’re going to be looking for it, or to use a phrase that’s sure to bother someone: they’re gunning for it. Face it. You’re going to write something that’s technically wrong to them.

Don’t worry about it.

The majority of people know the rest of the world has no clue they’re getting it wrong when it comes to semantics, but don’t take offense. They can live with it, and do.

Now, I’ve been rather obscure and general up to this point. Time for an example. I’ll start with me, personally and apologize (yeah, sure) for the rather lengthy explanation.

EXAMPLE

I’ve been into telescopes and looking at deep sky objects, through the eyepiece of said telescopes, for 50+ years (not to give away my age, or anything)! Since 1966, when I got my first crappy Sears telescope, with which I could barely find the moon, I’ve been dedicated to looking up. Not content with that, I wanted more, but since I couldn’t afford more directly, I resulted to building more. I constructed an 8-inch reflector telescope, from the mirror up. Now, that in itself was a whole ‘nuther fun project. In the end, I was able to see more and it grew until today, I now use a 16-inch reflector. The first 16-inch, I also made, but I now use a commercial one for various reasons, mainly because it’s more portable.

Most would call me an “amateur astronomer.” Internally, I cringe at that generally accepted term. I look up, and have since my grandfather took me out one evening back in 1956 and showed me a light moving across the sky. He said, “that’s Sputnik.” To this day, I don’t consider myself an astronomer, amateur or otherwise. I like to look up, but what I do is far from “astronomy,” or as I often call it, “astrominny.” I don’t measure distances, sizes, the what’s and whys of what goes on up there. The one time I attempted some serious astronomy, I was lying on the lawn with my best friend from high school in Palmdale, California in 1968. We tried to visualize the number of miles there were in four (or however many light-years it was) to the nearest star to our Sun, got a headache and quit.

That folks, is the extent of my astronomy. I’ve checked out actual “astronomy” classes at high school and college. They were nothing but glorified math classes. I’m no fan of complicated math.

So, the conclusion to this rather long explanation, is that when someone calls me an “amateur astronomer,” I internally cringe because what I actually do has nothing to do with science or astronomy. I visually observe celestial objects like galaxies, star clusters and nebulae. If you were to ask me how far away they are, how big, or how they formed, I neither know nor care! I “collect” the objects in my database, take notes, draw them and keep this data for my own personal gratification and maybe my OCD need to fill out lists. I love to be out under the stars and to have those real photons hit my eyes, photons that sometimes took millions of years to reach earth.

Semantics-wise, I’m not an amateur astronomer, I’m a “celestial visual observer.” However, for a common term and something others can understand, I don’t take offense to others calling me an amateur astronomer, telescope nut, whatever. I don’t get all fired up and correct people and get offended.

On the other hand, there are people out there with similar stories that do get offended, especially in this world of political correctness and the world of setting the record straight.

SEMANTICS – RESEARCH

When you’re dealing with sensitive issues, it’s best to do the research. Keep in mind that when you’re writing about a particular group, use the terms most acceptable to the group at large. There may be controversy amongst members, but you can’t go too deep into that unless that’s part of the color of your story. Then it may be okay to use that controversy as part of the plot. On the other hand, if you use semantic terms and get them wrong for a certain majority group, you could offend a lot of people!

My example is a long explanation and very personal, but you have to think of others, especially large groups and insider knowledge along with their explanations when it comes to semantics. Of course, you can’t worry about it for everything. There are generally accepted terms we all use every day.

A word of caution. Some generally accepted terms may be more out of ignorance than fact. You should be aware of those, if possible. Once again, this is where research comes in. A very simple example might be how to pronounce Lompoc, California. It’s quite often pronounced as Lom-pock in movies and TV, which will make a native cringe. It’s actually pronounced Lom-poke. Or, often the case on TV, Nevada is often pronounced Ne-vah-da when it should be Ne-vă-da. These are just pronunciation semantics, but is no different than apples/oranges terms.

In the world of political correctness, semantics is becoming more and more prominent. I deliberately stayed away from those examples because any of those alone could stir a pot that’s not meant for this forum!

The gist of this is beware of what you’re writing. Do your research. You can’t be perfect, but the more you know, the better your story will be and the wider your appeal. Well, that is, unless you’re out to piss people off, or just don’t care. There are those authors.

Happy writing!

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