What do you mean?

Somewhere between 77 and 78 years ago (I should be so old!) an English teacher I was very fond of and now to my shame can’t remember, in one of the ten schools I attended during the war and to my shame I can’t remember which one it was, gave us all some excellent advice which has rooted in my brain ever since. Even when you’re ninety there are some things you do remember. And this is what it was. ‘Always say what you mean,’ she told us. ‘And always mean what you say.’ It’s something in my ramshackle way I’ve tried to follow ever since.

And now this morning my younger daughter and I found a splendid example of gobbledegook words that didn’t mean anything at all. Let me tell you the story.

I always do the Guardian’s quick crossword as I’m eating my breakfast every morning and this mornings was a corker, because it had a clue in it that I simply didn’t understand. 22 Across ‘Exploitation to the point of diminishing returns (7).’ It said cryptically. I couldn’t make any sense of it at all. And when Caroline arrived to join me at the tail end of the meal and to see how I was getting on with my crossword I handed it over to her and she couldn’t make sense of it either, so she looked it up on Google and this is the answer we got.

“In economics, diminishing returns is the decrease in marginal (incremental) output of a production process as the amount of a single factor of production is incrementally increased, holding all other factors of production equal” – Wikipedia

I’m afraid we just sat where we were, side by side at my conservatory table and laughed ourselves silly, because neither of us could understand a word of it. When we’d finished laughing we looked it up on another site and got an answer of sorts, which didn’t make a lot of sense to us either, ‘overuse’. It was the intrusion of returns that threw us both off course, but it set me thinking about words being used to convey meaning.

Like all writers, I see it as part of my trade to use words as explicitly, honestly and powerfully as I can. I don’t always get it right but I always aim high.

My splendid English teacher all those years ago made me think and made me respect meaning. ‘Say what you mean’ and ‘mean what you say’ is a good motto to live by, especially now in our lie-sodden times.

As Hamlet says to annoy Polonius when that difficult old man asks him what he’s reading, ‘Words, words, words.’

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