I don’t think that means what you think it means.

We attach meanings to words above and beyond their dictionary definitions. We take words — common words with unambiguous meanings — and hang our life experiences onto them, as though we own them. A word can mean a thousand different things to a thousand different people, while still retaining its original definition.

Let’s say you live near a lake. You know this lake intimately — you grew up with it, you visit it often. It’s in the news all the time. You say, “Hey, let’s go to the lake,” and everyone around you knows precisely which lake you mean. The word lake, to you, still retains that original definition of “a large hole in the ground filled with water”. You understand, intellectually, that there are lakes all over the world of all shapes and sizes. But it is forever tainted by your personal biases. You measure the essential lake-ness of all lakes, everywhere, by the lake you know. When someone outside of your little bubble uses the phrase “the lake” to refer to a lake that is not yours, it seems wrong and weird to you… if only for a moment.

I’m like this with the word “hotel”. Where I live, all the hotels are down along the beach. If someone comes to visit and is staying at a hotel, you have to go down to the beach to visit them. And why not? Our beaches are beautiful year-round, and most of the people who come to visit are here on vacation. It stands to reason, then, that all the hotels would be on the beach.

As a result, I’ve attached certain beach-like qualities to the word “hotel”. When I think of a hotel, I think of sand and sea. Paintings of seagulls in the living room, starfish-shaped mirrors in the bathroom. Balconies overlooking swimming pools, overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. Names that call to mind seashells or palm trees or ocean waves.

Upon arriving at our hotel in Washington D. C. earlier this year, there was a moment where everything felt very out-of-place. “That’s not a hotel. I don’t know what that is, but it’s not a hotel. There’s no beach anywhere.”

Similarly, there are words in my vocabulary that notably don’t have outside connotations attached to them. Like “river”. There are no rivers where I live, at least not within the radius of a tank of gas. I can’t even name a river anywhere in the state of Florida, if any notable ones even exist. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a river in my life, outside of driving over them from time to time while traveling out of state. So when I envision a river, what comes to mind is a very sterile, textbook image. You know, a map with a squiggly blue line drawn on it.

Ancient Egyptians revered their river as a god. My outlook on the subject would have been more than simply foreign to them; it would have been utterly alien.

The way we mold and shape our language to fit our own daily life happens automatically. You don’t even notice it happening. Thousands of words are rattling around in your brain right now that have slightly different connotations to you than they do to your next door neighbor. Thinking about it in these terms, it’s amazing any of us are ever able to communicate anything to anyone.

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2 comments to I don’t think that means what you think it means.

  • Altair

    You raise some nice points. I actually didn’t realize it but I also have the beach associated with hotels due to my similar location.

    I am remiss not to mention the St. John’s River in NE Florida though, as unimpressive a river as it is. Actually, it’s kind of terrible.

  • Nicola Nomali

    I grew up in Florida by the Weeki Wachee River, although I don’t really judge all other rivers according to it. I just swam in it, took a radical water slide into it, and rode inner tubes and glass-bottom boats down it.

    It’s a good river. I’m for it.

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