By the time this post goes live, Janet and I will have seen The Chameleon Theatre Group’s latest production, My Husband’s Nuts. Review to follow next week.
The use and meaning of language adapts and evolves all the time of course. I can think of a few different meanings for the word nuts, as I’m sure you can… The word husband cames from the old Norse phrase house and owner (and it is thought such men were more attractive partners and over time the word husband came to mean married man, but it is not how it begun).
The English language is infamous for “borrowing” words from other languages but it is the richer for it. A language that does not adapt and evolve dies, even if it takes some time to do so.
Comedy writing exploits how language and meaning changes to get those laughs. After all, to enjoy a pun, you have to know what the pun is about, otherwise there is no laugh to be had. Great jokes can hinge on the right word being placed in the right place for maximum amusement.
Sometimes it’s coming out with unexpected words that generate the laughs where meaning is disregarded. My all time favourite here is Eric Morecambe standing by the window as an emergency vehicle siren goes off, for him to say to Ernie Wise “he won’t sell much ice-cream at that speed”. Totally unexpected, surreal and so very funny. And we all know that isn’t what an emergency vehicle siren means! There’s the gag. Brilliantly done. What a concept for the writer Eddie Braben to come up with too.
Radio’s Use of Language
I love Just a Minute and I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue. Both radio shows have many wonderful examples of great word play. One proud boast (and rightly so) by the legendary Nicholas Parsons for Just a Minute was it was used to help those in certain countries improve their English language usage.
I hope it still does. I’ve picked up useful pointers on grammar from this show alone. Grammatical deviation is a frequent reason to challenge a player and it can be interesting hearing the judgement on why something is or isn’t right here. JAM is a challenge with its ban on repetition, hesitation, and deviation. Incidentally, do try doing that. It is far harder than it seems. (Oh and I doubt if anyone will beat Mr Parsons’s record for hosting the same radio show for over 50 years either).
I have to watch for repetition in my characters. Sometimes I want them to use a set phrase, which is fine, but (a) that can be overdone and (b) I still have to watch for unintentional repetition as every writer needs to do. And that is when I am writing the language down! It is even easier to repeat yourself when speaking!
Changing and Exploiting Meaning
Technology can change meaning too. You hear the word bites and you can just as easily think of the computer type as the meaning which tells you something has sunk their teeth into something else (ideally not you!). Technology also sets its own language – anyone for nanobots?
As for the amazing Four Candles sketch by The Two Ronnies, that I feel is the ultimate word play comedy. It still makes me laugh every time I see it. It is cleverly written too (by the legend that was Gerald Wiley aka Ronnie Barker, who submitted his work under another name deliberately. It only came out much later that he was Wiley. He didn’t want his work accepted just because he was the star. Good for him. And I loved the idea that four candles were displayed prominently at the funerals of both Messrs. Barker and Corbett – so appropriate and rich with meaning for anyone who had seen the sketch).
A writer wants to exploit meaning too, especially if they’re writing in a very short form. A word with more than one meaning can be used to save word count and have a stronger impact on a reader, who should pick up from context the meaning you are using for the story (while being aware of the other meanings available). It is a trick of the trade.
Mixing Up Meanings Can be Embarrassing
A live language, such as English, should develop all the time. I admit whoever came up with facilitate is never going to be on my Christmas card list. (The word makes me grit my teeth every time I hear it. It’s ugly. I’m not convinced it’s necessary either. Someone enables something to happen. They don’t fa… sorry can’t bring myself to write it out a second time but you get the picture).
There are always going to be new words you don’t like but, for me, I’ll see if I can get them out in a good game of Scrabble (as long as they’re seven letters long or under). At least they won’t go to waste there!
Within English, there are different meanings to the words pants depending on where you live/come from. In America what we would consider pants are usually known as panties. Their pants are our trousers. All I know is you don’t want to get these two mixed up – could be embarrassing.
Why Do We Give Meanings to Words?
There is an argument that words have meaning precisely because we give them that meaning. Shakespeare commented to this effect with his “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” from Romeo and Juliet (and yes the Bard is right on that). So why do we give meanings to words?
It has to be clarity of communication. It is why we need words after all. To communicate well, we need to agree that words mean certain things. The Biblical story of the Tower of Babel demonstrates the confusion that set in when clarity of communication was no longer possible.
Even when we need words to record things we want preserved, in a way the oral tradition can’t do, we still have to agree on those meanings so those records make sense. That meaning has to be kept over time so the meaning is still relevant and understandable to those who come afterwards.
Incidentally, I’ve always found it ironic that English has been described as the lingua franca in so many places. What the French make of that is another matter.
Also, how could we operate if we all thought that one word, which gave an instruction, say, meant different things to different people? (It would muck up the Highway Code if it wasn’t agreed by all that a red traffic light means stop. Insert your own joke about certain drivers of certain car makes here….!).
When I write a story, especially a humorous one, I want to wring as much meaning as possible out of the words I’ve chosen to use to make the greatest impact on a reader. It means being selective. I like to think of flash fiction writing as precision writing because of that alone. So I need to know which words will give me the most for my word count and will conjure up the reaction I want to conjure up in a reader. If a reader cannot get my meaning, there’s no point to the story!
The play is the thing… oh yes… but without the words and the meaning we can all get from them, there is no effective play either. It would be just a babble of words and people will resent having to sit through it. A writer, of whatever genre, has to engage their audience so we look for shared meaning as a way of bridging the gap between our story and the reader/play watcher etc.
Meaning really is everything. (As most dogs would confirm. They may only know the meaning of a few words but they make sure they focus on the important ones like dinner time, walkies etc!).
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.
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