Fear in Writing: What's in a word?

Today in Literary History

Today in Literary History...December 14, 1907: Rudyard Kipling receives the Nobel prize for literature, the first English-language writer to do so.ud

Sunday, January 22, 2012

What's in a word?

We think we know what we're writing.  We think we know what we're reading.  But what if the word we use really means something else?

I am reading Robert K. Massie's Catherine the Great right now.  First, let me tell you that it is masterfully written.  The prose is interesting, the facts well-researched.  He follows a chronological order in laying out the chapters, but throws unexpected and interesting facts in places that catch you off-guard and, at times, make you laugh.  I highly recommend it.

Ivan (IV) the Terrible
I digress.  While reading this book, I was moved to search online for pictures of Empress Elizabeth I (Catherine's mother-in-law--and if you think you mother-in-law is terrible, you never stepped in Catherin's shoes).  One link lead to another, as they usually do, and I began reading about Ivan the Terrible.  This paragraph struck me as interesting:
The English word terrible is usually used to translate the Russian word grozny in Ivan's nickname, but the modern English usage of terrible, with a pejorative connotation of bad or evil, does not precisely represent the intended meaning. The meaning of grozny is closer to the original usage of terrible—inspiring fear or terrordangerous (as in Old English in one's danger), formidable or threatening. Other translations were suggested, such as Ivan the Fearsome or Ivan the Formidable.
It's not a major difference.  He's either 'terrible' because he did terrible things, or 'terrible' because he was feared for doing terrible, or at least oppressive, things.  But still, it made me think.

Do you think about the words you write?  The words you read?  Do you ponder over their meaning and strain over picking the appropriate verbage?  If not, should you?

(For those interested, I came across some very ornate 'dolls,' for lack of a better word, fashioned after historical figures.  Here is the link for Catherine the Great's.)


  1. Wow! I just went to the site - I really liked the Anne Boylen figurine. Looks like she is getting herself ready for the swordsman.
    As to your post - my god yes, I spend much time deliberating over words - both in my manuscripts and in my work as a therapist. Hugely important. And yes, we have diluted the meanings of words and while I don't regret the evolution of language, I do wish more would pay attention and know that something that meant 'terrible' several centuries ago, is different now. All one has to do is look at the meanings of 'hot' and 'cool' to know what we'll be bequething future generations of wordsmiths. Awesome is another -

  2. I don't worry about specific words as much as the overall meaning of what I write. I don't want to imply a situation or angle that doesn't exist.

  3. Interesting post. In particular when you're reading translated literature, you're ostage to the translators interpretation. I've read tons of Russian classics (in particular Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev and Lermontov). Unofortunately, I don't read Russian, so I'm completely relying on the translators >:)

    Cold As Heaven