The power of one descriptive word

Yesterday, there was a minor fire in my apartment building. I don’t know the full story but apparently, something electrical shorted out in a utility closet. The fire was limited to that closet, and the superintendent put out with fire extinguishers before the fire trucks arrived. No one was hurt — unless the superintendent’s slightly singed hair counts. There’s a few thousand dollars’ worth of smoke damage but everyone who lives in the building is safe and still has a home.

That’s not what you’d assume based on the local news. Early reports described this event as a “blaze”. When I imagine a “blaze”, I imagine something like this:


That’s the conclusion many other people drew, as well. The sight of fire trucks and water hoses (which were brought into the building as a cautionary measure) only supported the idea that there was an ongoing, serious fire. Residents of the building were inundated with phone calls from worried relatives asking if they were alright. Some were even told, “Your house is on fire!” by people who had only heard a rumour of a terrifying, life-destroying “blaze”. Today, I even heard people saying that they heard the building “burned down”.

Crazy, huh? A poor choice of words can send a community into an absolute panic. For an older example, consider the story of Martian canals. An Italian astronomer described canali on the surface of Mars, an idea translated into English as “canals”. Canals are often man-made, so this choice of word fueled the idea that there are Martian aliens with full-fledged civilizations. People ended up getting very panicky indeed about the idea of Martians invading Earth.

Of course, when people aren’t sure what’s truth and what’s fiction, one word can easily seem to signal danger. Our animals instincts tell us to take potential threats seriously. Words still have power in fiction, but it’s a more subdued and enjoyable power. In a clearly fictional framework, a word like “blaze” can give the reader a jolt of imagery and emotion in the same way a roller coaster gives us a safe, controlled thrill.

Focused on final Render edits as I am, it was just a bit bizarre for a word choice to jar my daily life so powerfully. While I’m thinking carefully about terminology like Aligare magic, people out there are picking the words broadcast over national news networks and sometimes those people choose poorly. What a double-edged blade language is.

One Comment on “The power of one descriptive word”

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