Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Contextual Train

Now and then, I'd think about words that had seemingly unrelated multiple meanings. I'm listing just a few that came to mind in the last few days. For that matter, "train" has bobbed up and down in my consciousness for probably years.

Choo-choo train, fancy bridal-gown train, train of thought, the verb for teaching and often showing how to do something.

I had a recent discussion with a co-worker about soup she thought was too acidic from too many tomatoes. I remembered just enough about acids and bases from school days and piped up about lime, recalling that it was somewhat alkaline. I then recalled that the lime fruit, it being citrus, would be acidic, like its skin brethren, oranges and lemons. Then I recalled that the lime I thought of pertained to limestone. Bad idea to use THAT lime to counter soup acidity! But interesting that these lime meanings are so unrelated.

About the same day my co-worker and I talked about her soup, which she lessened the acidity by adding parmesan cheese and black beans, I noted "It's kind of light in here." I immediately recognized the ambiguity. I had meant that I perceived fewer cafeteria customers than usual. As the sky was overcast, my statement could have meant room brightness. Speaking of brightness, "bright" could pertain to illumination, or intellect, or instance of apparent intellect.

We can be talking about alkalinity aspect of the pH scale, soup base, political base (firing up the base), basing feelings on certain influences, baseball base. Reaching way back, I recall "Mr. Bass Man" by Johnny Cymbal. All through the song life on the radio, I had never seen the song title in print, and was too young to buy records. I was fairly unaware of lyrics and bass singing levels. I actually used to think the song was about baseball—Mr. Base Man!

We could be talking about a musical instrument or voice level. Or a fish. Bass can be very ambiguous in written form. If spoken, the long-vowel word can be confused with base, its homophone. See base.

Left and Right
Left and right are paired for directions when used as adjectives, such as left turn and right turn. More recently, when used as nouns, left and right refer to political leanings. Left can also mean remaining items—"how many are remaining" for "how many are left". Right can mean right turn or correct turn when someone confirms a direction with someone else. (I use "correct" rather than "right" in automobile traffic navigation.)

Within the last 40 years, I have seen "straight" evolve in reference to cultural attitude (vs. hippie) to sexual orientation (vs. gay). The song "Straight Life" by Bobby Goldsboro seems so out of date now, when I think of its context when it came out.

Timing can also cloud the meaning of "hippie". Before the term became so popularized in the 60s to indicate a usually counterculture youth, it derived from "hip", a term for coolness, associated with jazz. "Mohair Sam" by Charlie Rich had lyrics that did not seem to confirm a counterculture image, particularly in the context of his 1965 appearance on Shindig, with his slicked back hair and tuxedo.

At home, I had occasionally referred to the kitchen island as a table while actually meaning its top surface, but the other party calls the island a counter. I suppose differentiating helps to distinguish the island from the table where we eat. "Counter" seems an odd word for a kitchen furnishing, as I think of integrated circuits called counters. The difference between table and counter seem more obvious at a diner. I previously mentioned counterculture. In this context, counter means opposite of.

I'm now bringing up the rear of this article, the caboose, so to speak. Besides "rear" as a position descriptor, it also means "bringing up" offspring. Rearing offspring, however, might be less common than raising them.

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