“He’s just so damn … weasely!” My co-worker’s grimace made it look like he’d just bitten into a lemon. Or maybe leftovers that had been in the fridge long enough to have a fuzzy green undercoat.
“Hey!” I yelped before I could think twice about it. “That’s an insult to weasels!”
We were doing what we always do on Monday mornings, at least when there’s a season of Game of Thrones in play. There are three of us in the office who are supergeeks when it comes to the show, and we gather with our coffee to recap the previous night’s episode.
Yes, I know. We’re dorkerfic. But that’s better than giving in to the Monday doldrums that are right around the bend for we office worker-bees, isn’t it?
That particular morning, we were talking about Varys and Littlefinger. I promise you I’m not going to go off on a GOT tangent like I did last week. If you’re into the show, you’ll probably agree with my co-worker that “weasely” is a fitting description. If you’re not, don’t worry. Just think of someone sneaky, sniveling, sharp-eyed and shifty, either in your world or in a show or novel you do like.
You’d probably call them a weasel, right?
That little Monday morning conversation between me and my GOT buddies got me thinking about words and how we use them. Of course, as a writer, I think about that all the time. We storytellers must. We mercilessly hunt those perfect descriptions – that one word or phrase that lets us capture the essence of a character or setting or thing without overloading our readers with descriptions. When we land on it, we roll it around on our tongues and tap it out on our keyboards. Then we do a happy dance.
OK, maybe you don’t do that part. But I do.
Over the years, I’ve heard sneaky, shifty-eyed, pointy-faced, conniving people referred to as weasels again and again. In real-life conversations. In books. On TV. I really never thought twice about it. When someone says “he’s weasely,” I know what that person is getting at. But I only know this because I don’t live under a rock. To me, “weasely” doesn’t conjure up the sneaky bad guy no one trusts. When I hear “weasel” or any variation of the word, this is what I see:
Yep. I see my sweet, cuddly, playful pets. Technically, they aren’t weasels at all. They’re ferrets. But ferret owners have referred to their pets as “weasels” long before I came onto the scene. It is just something that many of us do. We even refer to the marvelously entertaining little forward-backward hop-bounce they do when they’re happy and excited as “the weasel war dance.”
So when my co-worker called Varys or Littlefinger – I can’t recall which – “weasely,” I had to think about it. Both are characters who will smile to your face while stabbing you in the back. They fight wars with words, and never get caught in the bloodbaths. They sneak and scheme and twist the words of others. Littlefinger even has the pointy face and shifty eyes. Varys, on the other hand, is a chubby eunuch.
That’s about the only thing he’s got in common with any of the weasels I’ve shared my home with, though. My male ferrets have always been neutered.
So what is the point of this off-the-wall tirade? Just that as writers, there’s one thing we can’t always predict in crafting our stories. That’s the reaction of individual readers to certain words and phrases. Of course, there are general associations that come to mind for common words and descriptions, but there’s always going to be that oddball who sees things differently. The connotations that pop into our heads when we hear and read a certain word are colored not just by actual definitions, but by our own life experiences.
I’m not saying we should totally avoid those descriptions. For 90 percent of readers, calling your sneak or his actions “weasely” works well. I’m just pointing out that there might be that small percentage of the population who sees things differently. For me, a weasel is something I want to hug and give treats. I certainly wouldn’t want to do that with Varys, Littlefinger, or that co-worker you called a weasel the other day because he’s always blaming his screwups on you when he thinks you’re out of earshot.
As another example, what comes to your mind when you hear the word “bundle?”
If you’re a parent, perhaps you think of the old “bundle of joy” term that was splattered all over the cards you received at your baby shower. If you’re a camper, it might be your pack of gear or a pile of kindling. If you just hit the lottery, it might be how you refer to your money. Or maybe it is just a collection of stuff.
Whichever of these rings most true, most people find the word “bundle” fairly harmless.
Not me. I’ve cringed every time I’ve typed out the word writing this post. For me, “bundle” brings on an instant gag reflex.
My job is managing, supporting and administering a major software system at a university. Four times a year, the company that owns and develops this software provides upgrades full of patches and fixes to known problems and new features. When those upgrades arrive, we have to spend two weeks intensively testing every single process we do in the system – on top of keeping our regular day-to-day wheels spinning. These two weeks suck. Then, we have to move the upgrades into our real-time system during the weekend, when no one else is using it.
Anyone who reads this knows how my slacker ass feels about working on the weekends.
The four-times-a-year upgrades are referred to as “bundles” because the software company throws a bunch of stuff into them and gives it to us all at once.
Four years ago, the word bundle did nothing out of the ordinary for me. But ever since this has been my job, I think of “bundles” as a pile of stuff that will make my work-life insane four times a year and eat at least some of a precious Saturday. Thus the gag reflex.
So when someone says “bundle of joy,” my first thought isn’t a cuddly newborn. I can’t even get past the word “bundle” to process the “of joy” part. I’m too busy throwing up in my mouth a little bit.
What about you? Are there words or phrases that mean one thing to most people but bring to mind very different images or connotations for you?