Precision in words

If you’re into clarity and logic, English is not your friend. When there are words that are ambiguous, I try to find ones that have only one meaning (at least only one that would make sense in their context of use), but it’s hard.

Take for example, the word “hot” when describing food. It could mean it has a high temperature or it contains capsaicin. Then there’s “spicy”, which is not really much better because it could mean well seasoned or containing capsaicin. In Spanish, we have “picante” which only refers to the capsaicin sense of the word, versus “caliente”, referring to temperature. I used to think English didn’t have this distinction, but then I saw “piquant” used in a cookbook, and now I use that all the time. Most of the time, people don’t know what I’m talking about, so I get to explain it.

Then there are “flat head” screws. This could mean either that they are driven with a screwdriver that has a straight line end to it (versus one in the shape of a plus sign, a.k.a. Phillips, or some other shape), or that its head is flat in profile and it is meant to be counter sunk. Who came up with this extremely confusing term in the world of screws? I’ve heard “standard” used to refer to the type that is driven with a straight-line end screwdriver, but “standard” is not very descriptive.

And there’s “biweekly”, which could mean “every two weeks” or “twice a week”. I just avoid this word and use three words instead.

Don’t get me started on “flammable” and “inflammable”.