Of Terrorists and Tourists
I was driving the back roads of North Carolina’s Sandhills when my passenger Ana, age 10, asked me what a terrorist was.
“They’re bad guys who don’t have enough people to start a war,” I told her. “So they blow stuff up. Or mass shootings: Those are also terrorists.” Maybe this is not technically the best description, but it was my first thought.
“And that person who drove their car into the crowd of people,” Ana suggested. Yes. She also knew about the World Trade Centers. She considered this topic silently for a bit, then admitted, “I thought terrorists were the same thing as tourists.”
“But tourists just go to visit places,” Ana said.
“Yes. And terrorists visit places and blow stuff up. That’s quite a bit different,” I said.
Terrorists and tourists might sound the same, but poor driving notwithstanding, the two don’t have much in common. However, we adults have much in common with Ana: We mix up words and often don’t know their real meaning.
When writing, I often stop and think, Does that word mean what I think it does?
Meanings can be just a shade off or completely wrong. What exactly does it mean to ensure something? How can forego and forgo both be right, and which word do I want? Does dearth mean none, or not very many?
It’s easy to go down a rabbit hole at MerriamWebster.com or etymology websites, but save the fun for later. Better to flag the word as you write and dig deeper afterward.
The American Heritage Dictionary is known for its etymology entries, which can be helpful in getting to know a word.