When does a word not mean what it means?

“Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong,” I found myself muttering during a conference on education last week, attracting the attention of strangers and colleagues who were undoubtedly wondering what my problem was with the speaker.

To appreciate my position, they’d have to recognize this:

Words are like money. Neither has any meaning except for that which people agree to attribute to them. A $100 bill only has value because everyone agrees to treat it with value, and to accept it as such. Similarly, a word contains only the meaning that people agree on.

When you communicate, you need to use words as your reader understands them, even if that goes against the official definition. So while nutritious foods are technically healthful, your reader will likely consider them healthy, so it’s usually better to go with it than to use the more obscure term. If someone complains that they’re feeling nauseous, don’t tell them they’re actually feeling nauseated; just offer some Dramamine.

And if the universal consensus is that the word valedictorian means the head of the class, the slayer of bell curves, the gold medalist of the high school academic olympics, then that’s exactly what valedictorian means.

That’s what I wanted to say to the speaker at this conference. In a discussion on whether it’s healthy or appropriate to crown one graduate as superior to all others, he invoked the Latin origin of the term. “The true meaning of ‘valedictorian’ comes from ‘valedictory,’ which means ‘a farewell address,'” he said. “It doesn’t mean ‘the top student.'”

And maybe at one time, what he said about the word is true. But language evolves. Meanings change. And because everyone believes that valedictorian means the top student, then right or wrong and regardless of its etymology, that’s exactly what the word means.

So the next time someone tells me everyone is wrong about what a well-known word means, I’m going to ask for some Dramamine, and tell them I’m feeling nauseated.

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