Not long ago, while doing some online research, I stumbled upon a song from the dim and distant past, titled “Tain’t What You Do, It’s The Way That You Do It.” I still remember the tune, but don’t ask me to sing it; it would be much too painful for anyone within earshot.
While it was rattling around in my mind one day, it occurred to me that by changing the word “Do” to “Say,” we’d have some good advice for writers and speakers. In both those activities, it’s important that the words we choose accurately convey our meaning.
One young man learned this the hard way when he sought advice from a friend on how to make a good first impression on the attractive new female employee in his department. “Compliment her on her good looks,” his friend advised. “For example, say to her: ‘When I look at you, time stands still.’”
Unfortunately, the eager young man blurted out his message somewhat differently. “Your face would stop a clock,” he told the young lady, earning a response opposite to what he intended.
Some time ago, I read a “how to” article, in which the author was advising his audience to “stick to the basics” in their writing endeavors. The words he chose were: “Go to the fundament.” That was unfamiliar usage, so I checked a dictionary.
Sure enough, one definition of fundament was “a basic principle,” but it was ranked as #3. The first two definitions were: 1) buttocks; and 2) anus.
There are a couple of lessons here. The first is: It ain’t what you say; it’s the way that you say it. The second is: Don’t get cute with your choice of words; the law of unintended consequences may be the result.
The late French novelist and playwright Jean-Paul Sartre once warned that “Words are loaded pistols.” So be careful how you use them. You could shoot yourself in the foot – or perhaps in the fundament.