On Jelly Babies and Semantics and Why Categories and Tags are sometimes *not* helpful

Having just had a big rant about how great tags and categories are, I now need to talk about the flip-side.

This is partly because of my cultural studies background (and because of those nebulous French Feminists who are all about grey areas) but also because as I start producing more Microstories I’m aware I’m ‘naming up’ big emotions and values … and sometimes words (categories or tags like ‘grief’ and ‘love’) are totally inadequate for describing the experience. These things are very personal, and everyone experiences, say, grief, in a different way.

screenshot instagram jelly bearSo, for example, this Instagram screenshot here shows how I’ve tagged my latest Microstory with #courage. Great for people who are interested in looking for hashtags about courage … but, then again, there will be some people who’ll be sorely disappointed and perhaps even enraged to discover a Jelly Baby or Gummy Bear during their search for meaning.

Semantics – an area of study within linguistics – deals with precisely this type of language locale, or meaning: from words and phrases through to whole narratives. Lucky me, my mum worked for the prolific linguist Anna Wierzbicka for many years, so you can imagine the dinner table discussion in our house when I was growing up. “Is this a pot? No? So what makes it a jar rather than a pot? Whatever. Pass me the jam.” 

This is part of what makes cross-cultural communication so interesting. Living here, in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, I often have to put on my Basic English Helmet when I’m having my everyday interactions. Not so easy for someone like me who loves words … and especially loves Australian colloquialisms.

If I were to say, “How are things in your neck of the woods?” to my neighbour … let’s say a lot of confusion would ensue.

Similarly, I sometimes use words in German that (Ms15 politely informs me) are not the right word for that context.

Me: But Bedeutung means ‘meaning’, right?
Ms15: Yes, but you’re talking about ‘meaningfulness’.
Me: K thanks. BTW meaningfulness isn’t a word.
Ms15: It is. Look it up.

The great thing about this is that I now have to think very carefully about everything I say in English. This is not the same as rehearsing my German phrases before I have a phone conversation (I have to do that sometimes); it’s more about thinking to myself, What am I trying to say? Is there a better, clearer word to use?

Often, the words I need to choose are the ones with the least emotional or ‘value’ component.

For example, the word ‘loaded’ is a ‘loaded’ term. Especially if you’re talking about someone being ‘loaded’. You might be trying to say they’re rich … but you might mean that they’re extremely rich … but you’re not. Which carries a slightly negative value to the statement. And tells us a lot about you. (Especially if it’s in a context like the one below.)

Thanks Urban Dictionary.
Thanks, Urban Dictionary, for attempting to disguise negative messaging and insulting word-use about women with ‘humour’.

In that case, it might be better to just use the word ‘rich’. Or, better yet, say nothing. Because they might look like they’re rich … but they might be living on credit. You have no way of knowing.

Sometimes the great thing about being a non-native German speaker is that I don’t actually understand the emotional/value weighting of words at all. Which means it’s much easier for me to disengage from the emotion … and just hear the words.

screen shot - how happy were you with your google translate experience today?

PS If Jelly Babies speak to you, you can read about my version of #courage on the Microstories page.

Jelly Baby thin border

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