The thing about words is that meanings can twist just like a snake

by Jimmie Epling
Darlington County Library System

What has been at the core of libraries for millennia? Your first thought was probably books. When people are asked today what comes to mind when they hear the word “library,” their first response is almost always “books.” (OCLC. 2010 Perception of Libraries).A good answer because it recognizes what libraries were founded upon, but the answer needs a bit more refining. You were on the right track, but the paper book is just the medium, just like the scrolls of papyrus or vellum and the tablets of clay or stone before it, for what is at the library’s core, the written word. The Darlington County Library System, like its predecessors, was built on the written word. What has sometimes been a challenge for readers is determining the meaning of a written word because it can, over time, twist and turn on you just like a snake, always changing. With the advent of audio and visual recording in the early 1900s, that challenge has become even greater.

You can Google a word to discover a short definition. Sometimes that is far from enough to help you understand a word’s meaning when used. The Library can help you divine the meaning of any word in the context of its usage through the resources we have available in print and online through the DISCUS reference database, available 24/7. We have dictionaries of all types and on a variety of specific topics to find every meaning of a word.

It is said that English is among the most difficult languages to learn. It does not have the largest number of native speakers by far when compared Chinese speakers (527 million vs. 1.39 billion), but it is the world’s most commonly studied language. More people learn English (1.5 billion) than French, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, German and Chinese combined. English is spoken in 101 counties. The next closest are Arabic (60 countries) and French (51 countries). The reason for their widespread usage is rooted in the social, economic, and military history of the countries in which they were born. There are dozens of different dictionaries for the English language. We have dictionaries geared for children, college students, adults, and those learning English. Those struggling with euphemisms, jargon, slang (including hacker slang), foreign terms, cultural literacy, or misinformation will find help through us. Even though we in “the States” speak the same language as our “mother country”, Britain, we still need the book, “Divided by a Common Language,” to decipher pronunciation and spelling differences, as well as, unique word meanings. Those in need of a laugh will find Jeff Foxworthy’s “Redneck Dictionary” a very interesting take on the use of English.

Need a foreign language dictionary to translate the instructions for the hottest gadget you just received? In this increasingly interconnected world, we have it on hand or can get it! Two thirds of the world’s population speaks at least one of the twelve most used languages, Chinese, Hindi-Urdu, English, Arabic, Spanish, Russian, Bengali, Portuguese, German, Japanese, French, and Italian. The Library has dictionaries for these, as well as other languages, such as Hebrew and the “dead” language of Latin. We even have the “Seven Language Dictionary” where you can find the English, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish version of a word all in one place. If you would like to learn another language, we have audio books to help you learn Chinese, French, German, Japanese, and Spanish. You can also go to our website at to find 65 different languages you can learn online through Mango Languages.

The Library has dictionaries on specific topics. There is Blacks’ Law Dictionary. Biblical scholars will find dictionaries designed just for their use. There are several medical dictionaries in our collection so you can look up a term your doctor used. Those looking for a dictionary to help understand sign language, Judaism, rhyming, firearms, snakes, pottery porcelain, symbols, music, math, the supernatural, shorthand, biology, literary terms, chemistry, and more will find it at the Library.

For nearly two years now, regular visitors to the Library’s homepage and friends of the system wide Facebook page, Darlington County Library System, have discovered a new “Word of the Week” each week. It was inspired by the Hartsville Branch staff’s “Word of the Day,” which can be found in the Library and on its own separate Facebook page. Each week, I have searched for a word that you might not know or possibly be familiar with its latest meaning. When choosing a word to post, I keep in mind what the late author Terry Pratchett wrote about elves in a passage of “Lords and Ladies.”

Elves are wonderful. They provoke wonder.
Elves are marvelous. They cause marvels.
Elves are fantastic. They create fantasies.
Elves are glamorous. They project glamour.
Elves are enchanting. They weave enchantment.
Elves are terrific. They beget terror.
The thing about words is that meanings can twist just like a snake, and if you want to find snakes look for them behind words that have changed their meaning.
No one ever said elves are nice. Elves are bad.

It can also describe words, at least until you get to the end. Of course we all know he was wrong about elves. Not all elves are bad as J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in his “Lord of the Rings trilogy, and to which Santa can also attest. So not all words are bad, but they can be very interesting!

Those who follow it from week to week have probably noted some trends in my selections. The meanings of words can twist and change, especially in the context of their use. Each week’s new word is for me an opportunity to reflect on a word and its place in the world today.

My choice of words included quite a few that in some way describe the confusion or misdirection a person might be subject to in life. The Library is always ready to help you cut through the argot, bafflegab, ballyhoo, bloviating, buzzwords, discombobulation, flummoxing, foofaraw, gobbledygook, malarkey, newspeak, optics, or shenanigans of those around you.

For those interested in libraries, books, and literature, I have posted words like abibliophobia, epigram, epistolize, genealogy, lethologica, lexpionage, logline, logomachy, and voculation.

I’ve also posted words related to pop culture, e-commerce, and technology. Do you know the meaning of cosplay, couplie, crowdfunding, cryptocurrency, edutainment, fashionista, freemium, glocalize, hackerspace, meme, mesofact, paywall, petfie, science, showrooming, staycation, steampunk, textspeak, and Whovian?

The Darlington County Library System can help you grapple with any word you encounter through dictionaries and exclusive reference databases. Regardless of whether a word’s meaning has twisted over time, we can help you understand its meaning in the context of its use.

[Editor’s note: we post a word of the week in our paper on our “opinon page”, and, like Jimmie, we also enjoy choosing it for you!]

Author: Jana Pye

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