You Said What?

Words that have changed meaning

Kenn Fong wonders about words whose meanings have been co-opted by popular culture. “The other day a friend spoke of his first wife, who died at 22 from cancer,” he wrote. “He spoke of her special qualities, which others recounted to him after her death.” Fong wrote that he said: “‘Sounds like she was an avatar,’ then regretted my choice” because “they’d automatically make the association with the movie.”

The movie Avatar has indeed changed how most people view the word, which Webster’s New World College Dictionary (Fourth Edition) defines thus: “1) Hinduism a god appearing on earth in bodily form; incarnation of a god; 2) any incarnation or embodiment, as of a quality or concept in a person.” Before about 1995, the vast majority of references to an “avatar” were to somebody who represented a specific quality.

But then, as is the case with so many things, the Internet got hold of it. Now, most people think of an “avatar” as a substitute image or character. You can make online cartoon “avatars” of yourself based on The Simpsons, Mad Men, and programs in between; in video games, you can decide how your character will look or act, and it becomes your “avatar.” The movie advanced that usage greatly. While those “avatars” are certainly related—they are all incarnations of a sort—if you wanted to describe, say, William F. Buckley as a “conservative avatar,” the way a 1990 article did, your readers may think of him in blue skin, which he probably wouldn’t have appreciated.

Computers have added to many other definitions, of course. Mention “icon,” for example, and most people will immediately think of the “stylized figures, as displayed on a microcomputer screen, representing available functions or resources,” which is part of WNW Fourth’s first definition. But the first definition in WNW‘s Second Edition, published in 1982, is simply “an image; figure; representation.” ( Hmmm. Sort of like … an “avatar.”) In some circles, “an icon” is a religious symbol that is worshiped. You certainly don’t want to mix those up.

And pity the poor people at Hormel, who have to deal with the fact that nobody wants spam, even those who love Spam. (The capital letter is invisible when the word is spoken.)

Of course, words change meaning all the time. As recently as twenty years ago, “gay” was considered slang for a homosexual. Just try using “gay” now simply to mean “joyous.” Many readers will similarly misunderstand “partner,” as Fong wrote: “I was talking to a cousin, describing a screenplay I’d written, and I said, “My partner …” and realized she thought I’d just come out.”

Context is important, but when in doubt, find another word. You need to know your audience to be sure your point is getting across. You don’t want the ASPCA on your head if you write that you threw your “mouse” across the room in frustration.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.