“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

— Lewis Carroll

When we use a word, does it always mean what we think it means?

Of course it does — to us. That’s the challenge of communication: to use words that will mean the same to both parties. That can be particularly tricky when you’re dealing with words that sound similar or exactly the same. (And even trickier when they’re spelled identically, but that’s for another day.)

For example, shortly after the recent presidential election, this newspaper ran a photo from the Associated Press whose caption read, in part, that a Pennsylvania poll worker “canvases ballots.” Actually, that hardworking lady had her picture snapped as she canvassed ballots (closely inspected them), although she might well have deposited them into a canvas mail cart after having given them the once-over.

A winner was eventually called in each state, but the outcomes were not all readily accepted, and the losing side soon began to rebuke (express sharp disapproval of) and rebut (to challenge) the results. Though it now seems apparent who the winner is, it’s unclear whether or not the losing side will continue to refute (prove to be false or erroneous) its results.


Elsewhere in the newspaper, kudos to the food writer who told us about what kinds of wines complement certain foods, meaning that they go well together. You could, on the other hand, compliment a hostess on her good taste — as long as you use the version of the word with an “i” in it. To remember the difference, I think that “I” am a person, therefore “compliments” refer to people.

When I was in grammar school (as we called it then) my English teacher, Mrs. Perkins, was attempting to explain the differences between “they’re,” “there” and “their” to her seventh-grade class. When she asked her students to use the three words correctly in a sentence, my hand shot up, so eager was I to demonstrate that I knew that “there” is a place, “their” is possessive, and “they’re” is the contraction for “they are.” When she called on me I told her that “They’re playing with their ball over there.” Mrs. Perkins was very impressed. No one else seemed to be. Kids…

Since I am loath (reluctant) to have my readers loathe (hate) me, I indite (write) my story being careful not to indict (charge) the children with the crime of not appreciating the highly intelligent word nerd in the class.

Good keyboarder that I am today, I make sure to refer to my old spiral-bound copy of “The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual.” Or am I a keyboardist? According to that always-reliable source, the internet, a keyboarder works at a computer and a keyboardist is a musician. That’s what I’ve been led to believe, anyway.

And don’t even get me started on lay, lei, lie, lye, lied, laid, lain, etc. There’s not enough room on this page to lie . . . er . . . lay it all out.

It looks like Alice was right to question Humpty Dumpty’s view on the meanings of words — after all, they mean what they mean, and not what we hope them to mean no matter how similar they are. And besides, the only thing great about Humpty Dumpty was his fall.

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.”

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