Two things I've been told all my life have left me at some times confused and in other times in good stead. Regardless, I sound profound and wise at cocktail parties when I repeat either one of these things. So, what are these bon mots? From Dad: Words mean things. From Mom: It's not what you say, it's how you say it. So, which is it? Do words mean things or is it their usage that holds the meaning? Let's explore.....
Words do have meanings. Dad often jibes me about my 1980 American Heritage Dictionary which I've cited several times. He thinks I should have a dictionary that is more current. I like the older dictionaries because I find their definitions more accurate and less PC. I hate PC. PC blurs the actual meaning of words. For example, the word gay. In my 1980 dictionary the word gay means being merry or happy, bright or showy as an adjective. It is not until the 5th definition does it pertain to homosexuality. According to Dictionary.com the 1st definition refers to homosexuality and the last definitions have the word being merry, happy, bright and showy. Ridiculous. Why even use the word gay to refer to homosexuality in the first place? I'm not saying that the word can't be used in both applications but why change the primary definition? That's the PC part I abhor. The garden party's decorations and atmosphere were gay. My friend is homosexual. Those sentences are correct. I have no problem with homosexuals or garden parties, I'm simply using the word gay as an easy example to illustrate what I mean. And yes, I'm guilty of using the word gay to refer to homosexuality.
Then again, Mom is right in that the way you say something can make all the difference. Writers use this technique all the time. Example: Bob was very sad at the death of his wife. Or, Bob grieved the loss of his soul mate. These sentences say the same thing, the second one is just more poetic. Adolescents use it too. Anyone who has seen a Pauly Shore movie knows exactly what I'm talking about. Example: I love your mother's cookies. Or, I looove your mother's cooooookies. These two don't mean the same thing at all. The 1st is a compliment to your mother's baking. The 2nd is just nasty. Then there's the the ambiguous: That's an interesting color for a sweater. Is this positive or negative? Again, I have nothing against widowers, cookies, mothers, sweaters (regardless of color), or Pauly Shore. I'm just using them as examples.
So, which is it? Is it the meaning of the word or the way you say something? Is it nature or nurture? Is it the chicken or the egg? I guess it's both together. The gifted orator or writer can use these in conjunction to create wonderful passages and images. That is the craft of writing.