This is a post I wrote for “D” in the A to Z challenge but I thought the link was rather tenuous and used the piece about writing a Diary instead.
Whilst editing my manuscript I noticed that I have unknowingly fallen into the bad habit of using the same word for slightly different meanings rather than using one of the alternatives. Was I surprised or amazed? According to my dictionaries these words are interchangeable but apparently this was not always the case.
An old anecdote about Dr. Samuel Johnson is a good illustration of this point. When his wife found him kissing one of the female domestic staff she said “I am surprised.” In response the Doctor said “No, I am surprised, you are amazed.” Presumably he meant that he had been “caught unawares,” been “taken by surprise,” whilst his wife was “taken aback,” felt “bowled over and flabbergasted.”
Nuances between words in the English language (as taught during my schooldays) are being lost and increasingly one word covers all situations; does this matter when new words to describe our possessions, emotions and actions are entering our vocabulary at a rapid rate? If my grandchildren ever want to experience the full joy of reading classic literature from past centuries I think it does matter for, rather than just having to look up an occasional unknown word, they may struggle to comprehend the author’s meaning at all.
I know the difference between saying “that’s old-fashioned” and “that’s so not modern, grandma.” The difference is about 50 years.