Buzzword Compliance Conference
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Thursday, 2008-03-27 | Language, On the Internet, On Writing Well
Ping me and we'll Google the spec and drill down to the bleeding edge on these action items.
So, until very recently, I had a plain black t-shirt (size M) from the Gap. My mom bought it for me when I was like, 15 or some crazy shit.
The shirt was so old and so worn that, in addition to having suffered substantial fraying and general disintegration, it had also managed to change color. Originally black as my heart, over the years it had come to have a weirdly cinereal sort of appearance: generally it was something like #454545 but was lighter in blotchy patches around the neck and along big, gently arcing lines across the lower back where sweat and pressure would bunch it up and hold it under a jacket or a backpack.
It should be obvious from the wear and tear that I loved that shirt. But I loved it because it had become something so utterly unlike the thing that it was. When I wore it, I got a private kick out of the fact that it meant something to me that it couldn't have meant to someone else unless they really thought long and hard about it or I made a point of drawing its history to their attention.
Two of my favorite ideas have come to exhibit a similar wear-pattern; their literal meanings are fantastic but they've been employed as metaphors so frequently and for so long that if you want to use them literally, you've got to do some pretty serious explaining. These ideas are "impression" and "conception".
Impression. To impress. A great concept and, initially at least, an incredibly handy one. One of my favorite concepts to use literally. Any time two objects come into contact, pressure is applied and one leaves a mark in the shape of itself upon the other, the one that makes the mark can be said to have made an impression.
But try to use this word literally without explaining yourself. Just try it. "Wow--those thumbscrews really made an impression," or "The impression it left was kind of intense" or "The overall impression was not as severe as you might think."
Your interlocutors immediately assume you're talking about a person. His feelings/emotions are the soft object and the event is the hard one that makes the impression. In the case of the thumbscrews, your interlocutor will, dollars to donuts, assume that the application of thumbscrews caused someone to feel or to think a certain way.
At this point I feel obliged to mention that I'm not complaining. A child could tell you that the wear and tear that these concepts have endured at the hands of English speakers has to do with the need to describe or relate emotional states. And that's a pressing need; it makes every kind of sense that the "impression" ought to be understood metaphorically be default and that we should have to go out of our way to use it literally.
Conception/misconception is an idea that has suffered much of the same wear as the idea of impression; the literal meaning of the words, which generally has to do with biological reproduction, pops up in conversation with greater frequency than the literal meaning of "impression", but context has to be very specific and very clear for people to understand the words literally.
Outside of an abortion clinic, the phrase, "She experienced several unfortunate misconceptions" would almost certainly be taken as an attempt to describe someone who had frequently been left with the wrong impression.