Words Mean Things

One of the many characteristics that separates humanity from the animals is our rich vocabulary.  Critters can get certain points across with a variety of calls and gestures, ranging from “I’m ready to reproduce” to “Get the #@%$ outta my territory.”

We have the ability to discuss deep and abstract topics because our language is so complex.  When our ancestors starting developing language, I’m sure the critters played a crucial role.  Hunters out in the forest needed to communicate quickly before their quarry got wind of them.  “There’s a bull on the hill” is more concise than “There’s an elk with antlers on that rise of land.”

Likewise, when a hunter brought a chunk of meat home to his wife, telling her “We got a bull” probably helped her decide how to cook it.  She might be more likely to throw it into a stew pot, whereas “We got a cow” could make her inclined to roast it on a spit.

When some wild critters were developed into livestock, farmers took their descriptive names to a whole new level.  You need a boar in order for the sow to farrow a litter of piglets.  Calling those young pigs “shoats” means they’ve been weaned, and the gilts are the females that are still under a year old.  What about the males?  Only a few grow up to be boars, while the rest are converted into barrows for the purpose of becoming pork.

(In the middle of that process, the opportunity for preparing a dish called “mountain oysters” arises, but we might save that for the topic of euphemisms.)

Writing – and communication in general – benefits from the precise meaning of words.  Being able to understand each other fosters good relations.

For instance, imagine a friend invited you over for a steak dinner.  You offer to bring some wine as your contribution.  When you arrive and hand a bottle of merlot to your host, he shrugs and mutters “I guess this will work.”

You sit down at the table and see a pork chop on your plate.  You squint at your friend.

“I thought you said we were having steak.”

“Yes,” he replies.  “This is white steak instead of red steak.”

His tepid acceptance of your bottle suddenly makes sense.  “Well, if you told me we were having pork chops instead of steaks, I would have brought a white wine instead of a red wine.”

And you might also be sorely tempted to invite him over one evening for a mess of mountain oysters….

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