When words don't mean what they say

  • Article by: STEPHEN WILBERS
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • April 4, 2010 - 3:08 PM

I was on my way to the doctor's office when I realized it was going to be one of those days. I heard a commentator on the radio say, "That's blackmail really."

As I thought about it I realized the word really in that sentence was functioning contrary to its usual meaning. Normally, really signifies a greater degree of something or it underscores its veracity, as in "That's really stupid." But in this case really had weakened rather than reinforced the statement.

I considered the sentence without the word: "That's blackmail." Its meaning was simple and definite. But "That's blackmail really" suggested the speaker was making a claim that might not be accepted by all.

Now, I wondered, how did really do that? How did it weaken rather strengthen the statement?

But it wasn't until I had waited half an hour in the waiting room and I was in the examination room that I started to really worry (I mean really really). After checking my blood pressure, the nurse smiled and said, "The doctor will be with you soon."

I caught her meaning immediately: The doctor would not be with me soon. The doctor would not be with me for another 20 or 30 minutes. In fact, it was another 20 minutes until the doctor appeared. Really.

So for the second time that day a word had functioned in a way that was contrary to its usual meaning. In this case, soon hadn't meant soon; it had meant after another long wait.

What was going on? Was this a conspiracy? Was the language being undermined by nefarious manipulators? Or was it just an illustration of the malleability of language?

So I decided not to be alarmed -- until later that day. I was talking with a client, who told me he had been assured by his boss yesterday that, despite rumors of impending layoffs, "You have nothing to worry about." Today, my client told me, he had been laid off.

How could the sentence, "You have nothing to worry about" mean "You have something to worry about"?

But perhaps this was different from really meaning maybe or soon meaning later. Maybe this was a question not of language but of intentional deceit. Though troubling and unethical, intentional deceit seemed less unsettling than the total collapse of our language.

And then I thought about the language of certain politicians, and I started getting really (really really) upset until I realized that, no, their manipulation of words was not a conspiracy. It too was simple deceit.

So I consoled myself. It was me, not the language. I was listening too carefully, being too attentive. I shouldn't worry when I hear true fact from politicians or free gift from advertisers. I should just accept things on their surface value and not question them.

I was feeling pretty good (I mean good good) about things until I asked my wife to read what I had written.

"Well," she said, "it's interesting."

Stephen Wilbers teaches seminars in effective business writing. His column appears on the first and third Monday of each month. E-mail him at His website is

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