Nuance and Semantics (Get It?)

It seems that when people break into new fields, they desire to quickly establish themselves as resident experts to their peers. Send two Americans to Japan and each will return an expert on the ritual preparation and service of sushi, arguing with each other about whether or not the wasabi is properly mixed in the soy sauce, whether chopsticks are used, whether chopsticks are originally Japanese at all, ad nauseum. Or even on the home front, a popular pastime for college sophomores is to discover the rules that govern American grammar and design some form of primer to educate, as they perceive it, the benighted masses entirely nescient of proper comma usage or the basic your/you’re contraction. It’s new to them and, once realized, it’s all they can see in the world around them, so they feel compelled to create a lesson plan—frequently laced with expletives—to finally nail these elementary precepts into the dense skulls oppressing them. More’s the pity that each group seems to be entirely unaware of each other, so they tend to repeat themselves and, in all the noise, the general populace learns to ignore them.

Another favorite point of debate is word usage. This can come in the form of tiresome semantic debate, as two people weigh in and argue from their disparate perspectives as to the precise definition (and fuzzy, gray implication) of any given word. It is also addressed in the hotly contentious debate over politically correct terminology, where one side begs people to extend consideration to minority groups in refraining from popular epithets, and the other side insists their Freedom of Speech is violated when they can’t use the very slang terms that these groups use among themselves. And both of these battles occlude the entirely valid pursuit (I’ll even say necessary) of precise expression and nuance.

What makes nuance so special? It comes from a sybaritic appetite for language and creative expression. It’s  been said that nothing can be truly understood if it is not enjoyed, which is one of the most challenging rhetorical lessons I’ve encountered. I’ve tried to bear this in mind when I begin to close myself off from potentially offensive or unappealing events and environmental stimuli. Say that someone asks me to come out to such-and-such bar and see so-and-so band perform: I may have some misgivings against the bar, based on a failed social outing or date that occurred there, and I may have some prejudice against the genre of music in which this band manifests. It is, of course, intellectually dishonest to hold the bar culpable for one unfortunate instance entirely out of its control, and it’s unreasonable to categorically deny every band that appears within a certain genre. I can say I don’t like country music, but I have a passion for Neko Case, the Silver Hearts, and even a tender spot for the Oak Ridge Boys.

I can say I understand my language because I enjoy it so much. I feel personal relationships with words, intimate relationships with phrases and verbal patterns. When someone misuses a word around me… well, it depends on the context. If the word is grossly misused, there’s probably a comical story of misunderstanding behind it, but the nearer the miss, the more it rankles me because the speaker does seem to know what they’re trying to say, yet out of laziness or inattention they have chosen a similar but slightly wrong word. It’s the inattention that upsets me, like biting on tinfoil with the fillings in my teeth, more than stabbing blindly in the dark to use a large, mysterious word.

Yet to dismiss word choice as semantics is a grievous oversight. I will grant that Young Turks with the language are capable of overlong, tedious debates about word choice, which is tantamount to philosophical wankery with no goal nobler than pissing further and more copiously than anyone else in the room. This is not the same as nuance, not by a long shot. Nuance is the conscious selection of a word more apt than another word, more apt on a number of levels. To draw an analogy: in cooking, you could simply use salt for every dish you prepare, or you could use garlic salt in one dish, celery salt in another, unrefined rock salt or fleur de sel in yet another. Salt will do, but the nuance of what each ingredient carries will affect and interplay with everything else going on in the dish you’re trying to prepare. To me, that dish is no different than a structured sentence, and the choice of each word is the deliberation of one ingredient over another. Sure, you could say “he walked out of the room,” but there’s also “he slunk out of the room” or “he stormed out of the room.” Is that semantics? Not at all: each phrase communicates so much more information than the original sentence, with the same number of words. Precise word choice represents power and potency—when you use quality ingredients, you produce a superior product.

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