Words Redux

In a recent Monster Meditation I pondered my infatuation with certain words. Loving some words has its dark side—dislike or frustration with others. Some of the words I’ve always adored have taken on new meanings or new associations that end—or pause—my infatuation.

Iconic is a fabulous word. Phrases like: his iconic performance as the master spy OR her iconic photograph changed the way people viewed the consequences of war, just don’t sound the same when we are clicking on ICONS every day. An icon was BIG and now, it’s a tiny image at the bottom of your screen. I hope that ICONIC will once again grow into something big & important.

Literally—which used to be used primarily (if not solely) used to describe a literal or exact (precise, true, etc.) interpretation or reading, is now most often used for emphasis. It’s become a substitute for very. There’s a significant difference between ‘literal’ and ‘very’ that is being lost.

A literal interpretation of one of the most famous poems in the English language, The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost, would confine its meaning to picking between to actual roads and nothing more. The familiar dilemma of all choices with consequences that we can’t predict and can’t—outside of science fiction or fantasy—experience both options, would be a boring choice. The LITERAL view of the poem is flat and limited. Right now, the meaning of the word literal is losing its grip on speakers and readers. It’s being overtaken by ‘literally” as an emphatic expression.


Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth…


Words can be reinvented and used in new contexts as a language evolves. I’ve not crazy about BRAND as verb (unless you’re a cowboy branding cattle), but it is a popular marketing term. I can’t avoid it in my freelance work and it’s now part of selling fiction, too. Brand moved from the ranch to business speak:


“We’re re-branding the company”

“Every writer needs to brand their work”

“All the text must reflect the core values of the brand”


Words in redux, morph and change—sometimes it’s poetry and sometimes it’s just business as usual. As writers we have to go with the flow. Do you have an old favorite word that has taken on a new meaning or use?


Books at The Morgan Library in New York City.

Books at The Morgan Library in New York City.


  1. I remember an episode of Stephen Fry’s QI in which they listed some of the words Shakespeare is supposed to have made up. I was gobsmacked as many were words we take completely for granted now. So perhaps if the sound of a word becomes viral [now there’s one I don’t really like] perhaps it takes on a contextual meaning like slang? e.g. ‘wicked’?

    • Candy Korman

      Shakespeare was a word-machine!
      Viral is one of those words that went from one sphere to another and then… went viral! Some transformations are appealing. I like the use of the word ‘fierce’ to describe a dramatic or daring or simply totally cool fashion statement. It’s the big cat association that rings true for me.

      Wicked is regional in the U.S. It’s not new all, and fits perfectly in the mouth of an aging character from Maine. He might say that a beer was “wicked good.” What does it mean in Australia? It is a case of long distance cross pollination?

      I guess taking the long-view of years, decades & centuries, makes the transformation of words it’s own kind of evolution.