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Two Meanings. One Word.

By Joel | May 31, 2011

Have you ever been in a conversation with someone for a long time only to find out in the end that you completely misunderstood each other? It happens all the time between people of different cultures and languages, because of the context that surrounds each word, intonation, and voice. And funny still, it happens even to those who speak the same tongue, because the word’s meanings and use change over time.

Well, I had two funny incidents with this scenario just in the last two weeks. The first one was when a prospective client called me seeking assistance. Like what we always do with first time clients, we screen them to see what their needs are and to determine how our different departments may be able to help. Each program is different and has its own set of qualifications that we follow.

I started to ask this guy for a few demographic information, but he arrogantly refused. I knew I was up against something then. He questioned the process, called me names, was racist to my co-workers, and finally threatened to complain to my supervisor. I am one who, especially in this case never backs down on my word so I even offered my boss’ number so he can call. Towards the end, he was yelling at me with a funny accent and uttered these words that I will never forget, “You as an agency should not ask questions. That is rude. Tell me what the qualifications are and I will qualify myself. You do not know the meaning of human intercourse.” You read that right, I almost started laughing on the phone when I heard that. It didn’t make any sense to me then but later on someone told me that this guy was using the old definition of “intercourse.” Well, I wanted to call the guy back and at least remind him that that word no longer carries the same meaning.

And then the second funny incident with this play on words happened tonight. We have been invited to a tubing/rafting party at San Antonio this weekend, which we are planning to attend. I for one am not a big fan of the water, so when I learned that drinking is also going to be involved, in my mind I questioned the wisdom in tubing and having alcohol. I’m not going to do it, to begin with but inside of me, I got a little concerned for those who were going to try. Well, in my mind, I think about a high speed boat pulling on a tube while the person on top of the floatation device screams and holds on for dear life. Come to find out, tubing in the Texan context meant floating on a tube down the river. Still sounds fun, but not as active as I initially thought.

Drinking still does not appeal to me, but it seems more doable now that they would just be floating. Language is so special in this way that we can use the same word, but end up with two different meanings. Lesson learned from these experiences: make sure you have the same definition. People may laugh, be rude, and act like know-it-alls but at least you’d get a clearer understanding. I thought I knew what intercourse and tubing meant, but clearly these recent experiences say otherwise.

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