What are they on about?

28th January 2000 at 00:00
Mixed up words? it's not the wine that does it, says David Newnham

Alex needs a glass of wine. Preferably red, fruity and warm, but if it's white and dry and cold as ice, then so be it.

"I need some wine," he says again, only louder. And everybody laughs. What he means, of course, is that he wants some wine. But he's a toddler. Give him time.

At breakfast next morning (did I really need to open that last bottle?) he doesn't want toast. But instead of saying so, he shrieks that he doesn't like toast. Which is odd, considering how much he liked it yesterday.

Need, want, like... By the time he goes to school, I guess, Alex will know the difference. He'll continue to treat them as fully interchangeable - which of us doesn't? But, by trial and error, he'll have worked out what, by general agreement, the words are supposed to mean.

That's the theory, anyway. Occasionally, though, I wonder how many of us go through life never quite making it to that common ground.

I recently heard a Radio 1 disc jockey thinking out loud. "Have you ever wondered," he whined, "whether what you see as yellow i the same as I see?" Well yes, actually. Most of us had that discussion shortly after drinking our first bottle of cider. (I can't remember what we decided, but it made sense at the time.) Words are different, though, if only in that our personal misunderstanding of them can be corrected by others. Why, it's barely six months since a colleague felt compelled to point out to me that timber walling made from overlapping planks is called "clapboard", not "clapperboard".

I was mortified. How could I, a bit of an enthusiast on vernacular architecture, have gone so far through life jumbling film sets and farm buildings? And what were the implications for the rest of my vocabulary?

When it comes to abstract concepts - words such as need and want and like - my guess is that it takes only one bit of duff information at a critical time for our entire linguistic development to be skewed.

What else have I been getting wrong? What errors have I already passed on to Alex? The more I think about it, the more terrifying it becomes. The responsibility is overwhelming.

I think I need a glass of wine.


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