One Word, Two Contrasting Meanings

Be more vulnerable” my high school drama teacher kept saying. Barely holding back the tears I tried over and over to give him what he asked for, as a method actress it was piercingly painful. Finally he let me sit down called up the next girl to try the part and gave her the same direction plus one vital word, “fake.” It was the one time I felt completely betrayed by that teacher. The very next time he called me up I was able to give him exactly what he wanted. Fake vulnerability, laying on the guilt trip on my daughter in “The Glass Menagerie.” Of course the class still voted me to play the daughter instead, my performance of real fragility was the best.

It was a lesson in the importance of wording and in the necessity of realizing there are a lot of sloppy people when it comes to saying exactly what they mean. Yet even when the word is used correctly “Martyr” has two very different meanings.

When the social worker first told me she thought I was being a martyr, I thought she was giving me a compliment, praising me for my commitment to my sons. But when I looked in her face and listened to her I realized it was an insult. Last month, I wrote about martyrs and I am sorry to say I was a little sloppy with the problem that one kind is seen as a hero and the other a villain.

I mean I am deeply thankful to true martyrs, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, Jesus and Joan of Arc. Even the Buddha is said to have chosen death (by poison mushrooms) rather than offend his poor host by not eating the offered meal. This makes it so sad that today the word is used as an insult meaning a person who exaggerates their problems and suffering to get sympathy. No true martyr ever did that, true martyrs always fought for other people, not themselves, and were honored to do it. This is one word that I would change the definition of if I could, but it depends on how it’s used, as long as the word is used for both, the definition must include both.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. lifelessons says:

    A very interesting take on the prompt, Carolyne. In my family, “martyr” certainly took on a negative connotation, but I think as with many words, how we take it (i.e. in a literal or ironic sense) depends on the situation.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Carolyne says:

      Thank you for commenting. I do think it is up to us how we decide to take the meaning of the word. As a writer, I feel it’s especially important to be clear which meaning I am talking about when I write. I didn’t realize how negatively certain members of my own family looked on martyrs until I was accused of trying to be one. It hurt until I noticed that the family members who I respected most still respected me back and the ones who looked down on me were the ones who always made the most of their own misery (hooked on drugs and alcohol.)


      1. lifelessons says:

        Aha. Yes. Important to consider the source. Very wise.


  2. Thank you Carolyn. Your treatment of this prompt is instructive. I have l learned a new meaning of the word martyr. It’s nice.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Carolyne says:

    I am glad to share. Thank you for reading. 🙂


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