Words matter. In the writer’s craft, they matter a lot – in fact, they are the essential building blocks essayists, poets and journalists use to shape and color our stories. The words we choose are a wellspring of meaning for the reader, but the readers always bring their own understanding and experience to the mix.
Thus while writers have complete command over the words we choose, we forfeit control over how they are comprehended by each individual reader. It would be a little like having a progressive dinner with only one dish; we’d go from kitchen to kitchen with each participant dumping in as much as they want of whatever favorite ingredients, spices and flavors they happen to have in the pantry. At the end of the evening, the results might be a delightful surprise.
More likely, it’ll be awful.
So it is incumbent upon us writers to be the head chef, to choose our ingredients with care, pick words that carry not only the correct meaning but the right shades of meaning – and words that are understood in similar ways across the widest audience.
One such example that comes to mind is a word that’s been much in the headlines in the last few days: pandemic. Consider for a moment how the World Health Organization’s designation of that one word has changed the entire conversation around the current coronavirus emergency. It was an epidemic; now it’s a pandemic.
It just sounds a lot worse, and of course, it is. But pandemic has a very specific meaning to the folks at WHO, distinct from epidemic. The latter is a widespread illness within a defined area or group, while a pandemic means the disease has gone global. However if you are an individual suffering from COVID-19, the distinction is moot.
Indeed the word pandemic comes from two Greek words, pan meaning “all” and demos which means “people.” So when we talk about this pandemic, we need to remember we’re really talking about a health catastrophe that is affecting all people – across every national border, every race and every age.
Which brings me to the other pan word that sounds a lot the same: pandemonium. Here too, the pan part is the same Greek word “all.” But the last half -demonium comes from the Latin expression that also gives us words like “demonic” and “demons.” So pandemonium is literally a word that describes what happens when “all hell breaks loose.”
The current state of pandemic is difficult, trying and for some of us, tragic. But it’s a situation we as humankind will come through. That is, if we don’t allow pandemonium to take over.