The true meaning of words

If I have more than a few seconds to spare when looking up a word in a dictionary, then I don’t look at the definition but at the etymology of the word. (The Oxford English Dictionary  is particularly great for it.) The reason is that it is the roots of the word that give the true sense of what the meaning of the word in a particular context may have been and how best to use in the future when a chance is presented. 

This particular habit of mine made a lot more sense when I read Barry Smith’s thoughts on Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophical work:

What are the conditions for something to be called a game? How do we use the word “game”? How do we define it? Wittgenstein points out that any set of conditions that you come up with which are supposed to define the meaning of the word “game” will fail to cover some cases that we happily recognise as cases of games.

So football is a game with winners and losers, teams and a ball. So is baseball. But a game may be just one person throwing a ball against a wall and catching it: with no winning or losing. Ring-a-ring-a-roses played by children is a kind of game, but it’s not even about getting better at doing something. It seems to be just about the repetition of an activity over and over again.

So, what is it that all of these cases have in common that makes them all equally covered by that term? Wittgenstein’s answer is not going to be a single set of necessary and sufficient conditions; rather, there is going to be a family resemblance between the activities of one game and another, as in the way that members of a family might resemble each other and have more or less distant resemblances to other members of the family.

This analogy can be extended to find the changes in the meanings of words. Words often get redefined during their usage, just as individuals gain new characteristics as they grow older.

The essence of etymology has never been clearer to me.

On a mission: To be a good writer

I started blogging because I wanted to write better and become a writer. Even after blogging for three years, that still remains my strongest driving force.  However, I’ve never done any serious research on good writing, so I thought I should get to it.

Like any generic google search the “How to be a good writer” search is full of links that don’t have enough content in them to be valued so high on the search results. I thought it would be valuable for the community if I utilise my time by demoting links which weren’t useful. It turned out I had to demote two results for every one that I found useful. Nevertheless, I persisted on my mission and I am now about to write a gist of what I learnt.

The wikiHow is a good start but just like most wikis has a lot of content but little structure within the content. Yet, I think the most valuable points from the wiki are that one must try and write everyday. Reading a lot will help improve vocabulary and grammar. Improving one’s vocabulary though will require active effort not just reading. Maintaining a vocabulary notebook might be a good idea. Plan your writing but write the first draft quickly. Be specific and tailor your writing to the audience.

MD Weems notes that one must start with what you know and start with small articles. “Your writing must instill confidence in a mind that is inclined to doubt you” says Robert Warren who makes two very good points on how to keep the reader on the writer’s side by being bold and confident and maintaining an optimistic, positive tone.

Most people seemed to suggest that one must always read their own writing and make edits and to gauge one’s writing it is best to have someone else read it and get their opinion. Reading will help you gain knowledge about different styles of writing and explore new perspectives.

To conclude, I would like to share some interesting quotes on good writing:

  • “Write without pay until somebody offers pay” and “When you catch adjectives, kill most of them — then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together; they give strength when they are wide apart.” — Mark Twain
  • The abstract is seldom as effective as the concrete. — John Gardner
  • Vigorous writing is concise. — William Strunk Jr.
  • Don’t write about Man, write about a man. — E.B. White
  • Is every word doing new work? — William Zinsser
  • Never use the passive where you can use the active. — George Orwell
  • Pick up every sentence in turn, asking ourselves if we can possibly make it shorter. — Sheridan Baker
  • We don’t reject writers; we reject pieces of paper with typing on them — Isaac Asimov
  • Ptahotep noted, “Happy is the heart of him who writes; he is young each day.” Yes, but only if he writes from the heart, and not just for copious beer. — Marvin Olasky
  • “The first million words you write will be crap” — Anonymous

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