Words have generally accepted meanings — the venerable Oxford English Dictionary and its (lesser) equivalents tell us what those meanings are. Meaning, pronunciation, origin: all there, in black and white. But then there’s what words actually mean to us — the meanings that words take on; their connotations in three-dimensional life.
Recently those meanings sparked a conversation between our team and a team we’re collaborating with. Thrift. The way thrift was described, to me, was wonderful: closely tied to the prairie farmer, who made do with what was available to him. He solved a problem in the most elegant way possible with the resources at his disposal. He was sustainable before DiCaprio made sustainability cool. He wasted not, and wanted not. This image reminded me of a couple of wonderful men I’ve known: romantic types. First, my Grandpa Ed, himself a prairie farmer, who could use the parts of an old typewriter to fix his lawnmower. Second, my favourite journalism professor, who taught us that the best writing is writing with thrift — writing that does the most with the fewest words. Something that I aspire to, but (you may have noticed) continue to struggle with.
But in society, thrift has adopted a meaning that is anything but romantic. It’s been tainted by the Sally Ann, by Value Village. By our ‘shabby chic’ (but mostly just shabby), cobbled-together university furniture and sweaters that never quite lose that smell. It’s come to denote cheapness.
A good word, spoiled.