Recently I was called out for using the word “shrapnel” in the title of my last blog post which discussed the Italo Calvino novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler, and how this book speaks for the reading/writing connection. I entitled the post “Days under Bombardments, watching the shrapnel fly.” I received the following comment: “Shrapnel is not a synonym for submission, splinters or fragments. Do not use it unless you know that it comes from a shrapnel shell, as used to cut barbed wire in the First World War and against aircraft in the Second World War.”
Have I just been scolded online?
The word shrapnel is often used in conjunction to explosive events, and just the other night I heard a reporter describe wreckage from a plane crash as “shrapnel.” According to the American Heritage Dictionary, shrapnel is “an artillery shell containing metal balls fused to explode in the air, the metal balls themselves, or fragments from a high explosive shell, mine, or bomb.” The urban dictionary recognizes these definitions, yet adds it can also mean “loose change of little value.”
How many of you have heard words used in a manner where they sound atonal, like a John Cage concert or off key whistling? A co-worker says, “I have literally been to the moon and back today.” Or you hear a friend describe someone as “the most artistical person I know,” Then there’s my favorite: “I’m writing a fictional novel.” These things screech inside your head as if you’re braking a rusted schoolbus down a steep slope, so I suppose my use of the word shrapnel felt that way to my censurer.
This isn’t my first semantic faux pas. I grew up in a white, Republican household where my father regularly said things like, “see if you can Jew him down on the price.” (Is it any accident his favorite TV character was Archie Bunker?) I am ashamed to reveal I inherited his politically incorrect phrases. While having dinner at a conference one evening, I remarked someone was “very Jewish with his money.” One of my tablemates, who is also a friend, said to me, “I’m Jewish, and what you just said it offensive.” It never occurred to me a statement like that denigrates an entire culture. It’s a metaphorical phrase I grew up hearing countless times, yet it never occurred to me to consider the literal meaning behind those words.
Because we are human and flawed, each of us has diction preferences. Most of my erudite friends wince at hearing “I have went there,” and “where’you at?” and other bad grammar. A former student says the word ‘snacks’ make her cringe, and a friend of mine can’t stand hearing the word ‘panties’. I hate the word “gals.” When I am referred to as a gal, I picture a woman dressed in buckskin wearing a ten gallon hat. I am not a gal.
The word ‘shrapnel’ does not appear in my essay, only the title, “Days under bombardments, watching the shrapnel fly.” I responded to my critic to clarify this, remarking “It’s a quote from the book. The character is describing his work in the military. I used it because I like the sequence of words.” To avoid confusion, I probably should have explained the quote somewhere in my post, but I thought the quotation marks surrounding the title let readers know this was a quote. I could have saved myself embarrassment by choosing a different portion of text to quote, or by contriving a bland title, such as “My Feelings About Italo Calvino’s Book.” I chose to use the words for their cadence, not context.
Language is not static. Just as bad now means good, and phat does not refer to weight, the word shrapnel is commonly tossed around out of context. I’ve heard it used in many contexts, such as, “ice was falling like shrapnel,” and “After the tornado, the yard was nothing but shrapnel.”
At the beginning of this post I said I was “called out” by someone. This terminology is a recent addition to our vernacular to describe a scolding. Poets understand the liquidity of language and metaphoric use of words. When poet Naomi Shihab Nye says, “Music lives inside my legs,” she does mean her bones are literally connected to speakers that broadcast songs, yet her readers understand the visceral use of the metaphor.
I apologize ahead of time for any semantic foibles I will commit in the future. As I age, the one thing I know for sure is we are, to steal a title from Anne Lamott, ‘imperfect birds.’
Happy Reading and Writing.