The Meaning Penumbra

Let me tell you two quick stories.

1) When I posted my findings on what I learned when I went to a shooting range, it was pointed out that the word “gun” does not accurately apply to small arms.

2) My wife is a scientist, and scientists have a very specific use for the word “theory.” Tell her that “evolution is just a theory,” and I will open betting on how long it takes her to frenzy and try to kill you.1

In both cases, these are conflicts within a word’s penumbra, or the meaning that people have put on a word that isn’t explicitly covered in it’s technical meaning. In both of these cases, it’s an example of a technical term gaining a vernacular meaning that isn’t the same as (or even at odds with) the original meaning.

But there are also cultural penumbras for words. Here’s a third story.

3) During one design meeting at work, one of my Scandinavian coworkers suggested “Blood Purity” as a term we could use. All of the Americans in the room immediately got a little nervous, and it led to a short conversation. For us, the term is very loaded with cultural meaning, primarily from the Nazis.

As a writer, this is something I have to keep in mind often — word choice might have a different meaning based on the audience. What might sound authentic and edgy to my Midwestern Caucasian ear might sound hokey or even infuriating to someone on a different coast, or from a different ethnicity, or just in a different headspace than I am. This penumbra extends to characters as well, as their own word choices will certainly stem from their experiences and opinions, and careful word choice can help distinguish two characters in dialogue.

This is why it’s important as a writer to listen to lots of different people and how they use words. An airport terminal or public transportation can be a wealth of education on the various inflections, intonations, and word penumbras people place on things. All of this can help give your writing a more authentic flair, and also keep you from accidentally having your military character call a pistol a “gun.”

Quick health update: I still have vertigo, but I’m doing better. I can go through an entire day without needing to nap, and my sleep and eating schedules have regulated to something much closer to normal. I have another following with my surgeon next week, and I hope I can lift things and start working out again after Atlanta by Night.

Also! I’ll be at Atlanta by Night! I will be on panels! I may even LARP (recovery and energy levels pending)!

Other Articles You Might Like:

Please support my work by buying one of my products!


  1. Of course, I’m joking. She’d likely only maim you.