What Did You Say?

By Miko Johnston

I’ve been thinking a great deal about words lately. Part of the reason is that I recently pitched a story I’d written almost two decades ago to a producer who’s shown some interest in the project. It contains language that would be inappropriate for this blog, but while the comic murder mystery at the heart of the story is meant to entertain, its satirical backdrop illustrates society’s relationship with certain words over the last half-century.

Anyone who’s lived more than a few decades has seen a loosening of standards in the media as well as in general life. While this blog – and  I suspect some of you – may eschew using certain words, I’ll bet your standards have changed along with the rest of our world. I’ve seen words in newspaper articles I’d never expect to see in print. I rarely watch TV except when I travel, but even with my limited exposure I’ve heard language in television programs – and I’m talking network TV, not cable – that wouldn’t have been permitted in the past.

Do you recall George Carlin’s Seven Words you can’t say on TV? Lately a few have slipped by. I recently heard a TV news anchor say a word I never expected to hear, having to do with bovine excrement, without a peep from the network or FCC. One of the Democratic candidates uttered another Carlin no-no during the first debate. A few words are still off-limits, and by my account we’ve added a new one to the list (hint: it starts with an N).

I’m not only thinking about obscenities. I’ve also noticed how many ‘ordinary’ words have been redefined or had their meaning augmented. Take the word average. It’s a mathematical term, yet it’s taken on social connotations. We hear about the average person and equate it with falling straight down the middle of a ranking system, not being good or bad. No one aspires to be average anymore; it has become something to avoid, either as a person or as an opinion.

As a writer, I find I must be more precise in my usage of certain words because of this. It concerns me that something I say or write could be misinterpreted. As a former journalist, my goals in reporting were ABC: Accuracy, Brevity, Clarity. Let’s not get into accuracy in news. Brevity translates into sound bites – catch phrases and such, or interrupting a speaker who takes more than a microsecond to get a point across. These days Clarity must include weighing a word’s intended meaning against what it’s perceived to mean. Social shifts, political correctness, and cultural rebranding have all contributed to this landscape, opening up new possibilities for writers as well as new dangers.

On occasion I’ve read lines of writing that could be misinterpreted. In each case I had close ties to the author, so I knew better than to take offense at what they wrote. However, readers who lack that personal advantage might not see it that way. I also worry a great deal about doing that myself and have on more than one occasion censored my work rather than risk the possibility of having someone take my words to mean something I never intended.

Have you thought about this as well? Are you concerned with the possibility that something you’ve written could be taken as insulting or offensive even if that wasn’t your intent?



Miko Johnston is the author of the A Petal In The Wind Series, available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington. Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com



(Posted for Miko Johnston by Jackie Houchin)










Author: Jackie Houchin

First, I am a believer in Jesus Christ, so my views and opinions are filtered through what God's Word says and I believe. I'm a wife, a mom, a grandma and now a great grandma. I write articles and reviews, and I dabble in short fiction. I enjoy living near the ocean, doing gardening (for beauty and food) and traveling - in other countries, if possible. My heart is for Christian missions, and I'm compiling a collections of Missionary Kids' stories to publish. (I also like kittens and cats and reading mysteries.)

19 thoughts on “What Did You Say?”

  1. Ah, the possibilities of having someone getting their nose out of joint while reading something I wrote. My reply:It’s their nose. I could say black and they might want white. Let them find their own color. I have to write what I want or we are in 1984 (Orwell’s book; I just finished reading it.) The thought of being dictated to is so appalling I shall only say that I have no control over how someone responds to my work. I am true to myself, have really good standards thanks to my parents, and I pass on those standards in my writing. If you don’t like it, read another book… if libraries and bookstores still exist. (Read Fahrenheit 451 to understand that one.) Read on, my friends. I will continue to write.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. As writers we must be true to ourselves and our thoughts, even if others disagree or become offended. However, I find that some comments or beliefs are clearly offensive and others are clearly not. It’s those gray areas that I question.


  2. Thought provoking post, Miko, and a topic periodically discussed at me house – our changing lexicon. Especially phrases where their meaning has changed/morphed in our current “jargon.” My favorite is “begs the question” – used all the time now and not meaning what it did originally. Personally, in my life and writing, I try not to offend do to carelessness in thought or action, but don’t try to be “politically correct” or give extra thought to hot button words – I don’t give a darn. I’m in Gayle’s camp there! Which as an aside, it is a challenge to our writing skills to create descriptions that produce the reader’s own picture of the character based on their own experiences, ethnicity, and life interactions. It’s an interesting topic.


    1. Thanks, MM. I believe part of the problem is we don’t teach language like we used to. Some words have very specific meanings, like secret. When someone tries to get me to reveal a secret, I say no and remind them, that’s why it’s called a secret. Other words fall into that category — hey, that could be my next blog post : ) And maybe you could explain the past and present meanings of “begs the question” for our readers.


  3. I always try to follow whatever guidelines the publishers I’m writing for seem to want.
    And I found it interesting that, when I was a high school thespian I was a script girl for the musical The Fantasticks. Back then, the Abduction Ballet was called something a lot more controversial, though it was changed over the years–and, yes, I was in high school when I learned the original!


    1. Having a publisher set the limits takes a lot of pressure off of a writer. So does the legal back-up they provide.


  4. In my first book, my characters had different political and religious points of view. I know, the no-no topics. This was based on the fact that people in real life have differing points of view and I wasn’t trying to offend anyone. A few readers took offense. I love Gayle’s response: “It’s their nose.”


    1. I’ve been fortunate in that all of my negative feedback has come pre-publication. I wrote a humorous story and someone took offense at one bit. I realized it didn’t really add to the story so I cut it. However, I’m not sure how I would have felt if I thought the line was more critical.


  5. All good comments to Miko’s excellent piece. I only take issue with weird words that have entered our world . What does “woke” actually mean? A pet peeve is the word “fun,” as in “it was so fun,” and there are other instances that are so glaringly ungrammatical that I get annoyed and that is not a fun emotion!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ironically, a situation like that experienced by a friend who taught HS English inspired the story I referenced in response to Linda. The students’ dropping the F-bomb in class was bad enough, but they used it as a noun instead of a verb.


  6. Well said, Miko. I fear the precision of language has become a casualty of the modern age. And it’s unfortunate that Carlin’s Seven Words don’t have the shock value they used to, because one hears them more and more often. I’ve almost been immunized. The only time something I’ve written has been seen as insulting has been intentional on my part, as in my email to “customer service” complaining about the lack of said service.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve learned the language issue is very cultural. For example, CNN recently broadcast some special programs (with warnings) that included the S-word, but bleeped out the F-bomb. I’ve seen programs from Great Britain that do the opposite.


  7. Interesting post, Miko, and engaging comments from all other writers. Decades ago, when I was fairly new to our country, I asked somebody, “What does SOB mean?” Receiving the answer I marveled, “So Americans even abbreviate cuss words.”
    I believe that the interpretation of language is in the eye of the beholder. So write on and don’t worry.
    Oh, and MM, please enlighten me about “begs the question.” I have no idea what it used to mean or what it means now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. (from Madeline) Hi Alice, way back in the dark ages when I was in school “begs the question” was a logical fallacy statement regarding circular reasoning – from Google, “Begging the question is a fallacy in which a claim is made and accepted to be true, but one must accept the premise to be true for the claim to be true. … Examples of Begging the Question: 1. Everyone wants the new iPhone because it is the hottest new gadget on the market!” Now, the phrase seems to mean, “which leads me to ask a follow on different question,” sometimes about something else. From Google again, “Begging the question” is often used incorrectly when the speaker or writer really means “raising the question.”


      1. Thanks for clearing that up, Madeline. I wondered about that, too, and I’m certain other readers did as well.


    2. Thanks, Alice. Funny story about the abbreviated cuss words. You make a good point with it. Using an acronym like the F-bomb or SOB expresses the sentiment with a fraction of the sting.


  8. My goodness, Miko. What a can of worms you have opened! Of course, as a writer, I love words. I go back and forth to find just the right word to express my thoughts. And I truly loathe this rubbish about “political correctness.”
    I feel this is just an excuse for an unnamed group of people to make themselves feel important in deciding what words they do not want others to use. This stops people having to think for themselves as to whether the words they are about to utter will offend or hurt others. Let us all take personal responsibility for the words we say – and write. As Gayle says: “It’s their nose.” Great post, Miko!


    1. Thanks, Rosemary. I also loathe political correctness because it focuses too much on the political and not enough on the correctness. We have to acknowledge that while some ideas and words may be unflattering, it doesn’t make them untrue. Still, I know some words are freighted with meaning that we may not consider or even be aware of. That’s where my dilemma lies.


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