On being ... meaningful

By Ingrid Sapona

I know this is going to sound odd, but I’ve been debating about whether to title this: On being … meaningful, or: On being … meaningless. Stay tuned -- I think you’ll see why.

Awhile back a sailing friend was telling me about a letter to the editor he read in a magazine called GAM on Yachting. My friend asked if I was familiar with the magazine and whether I liked it. I was pretty sure I knew the magazine he was talking about (I think Dad used to get it and I know I’ve seen it around the sail club) and I think I told him that if it was the one I was thinking of, I thought it was kind of hokey.

Since we were talking about it, I mentioned that I’d always thought it was an odd name. I wondered whether GAM was a meaningless (or made up) word, or whether maybe it was an acronym. I postulated that maybe the G stands for Great Lakes and the M might be for marine... My friend looked at me quizzically and said, “Oh, I think it just refers to a conversation -- you know, gamming about this or that.”

I had no idea what he meant and frankly, I thought he was (pardon the pun) pulling my leg. I had only ever heard of gam as slang for leg – as in, “Tina Turner has great gams”. He agreed that yes, gam does have that meaning, but he insisted gam also has something to do with conversation. I’d never heard of that meaning (and said so), but we both let it go at that.

A few weeks later he brought me a copy of the magazine. I had a look at it and it was exactly as I remembered it -- very folksy -- more like a small town newsletter, full of gossip and news about everyday sailors. It clearly isn’t aimed at the America’s Cup-type. Indeed, I noticed a small item in that issue about a member of my sail club who had recently sold his boat cradle moving business.

At that point I remembered that I still I wondered what the magazine’s name meant, so I combed through the introductory pages and sure enough, just above the masthead it says, “To call upon, chat with, and otherwise communicate with, as the officers and crew of another vessel”. Naturally, I wondered if that was the magazine’s mission statement or could it be what gam means? I decided it was time to pull out the dictionary.

I don’t mind admitting I was quite surprised at what I found. My Webster’s Collegiate defines gam as, “a social visit or conversation between crews of ships, especially whaling ships at sea”. And according to Merriam-Webster on-line, gam is, “a visit or friendly conversation at sea or ashore especially between whalers”. Isn’t that neat! Except for the whaling part, the magazine’s down-to-earth writing and the stories covered really are meant to be just that -- conversations between sailors.

I immediately phoned my friend to admit my ignorance of the meaning of gam (to his credit, he kept his gloating largely to himself), and to share my delight at now being “in the know”. I couldn’t help wonder, however, how many others out there might be like me and not really appreciate the appropriateness of the title. I also thought about the fact that my attitude toward the magazine that I earlier saw as simply hokey had changed once I realize it’s not meant to compete with high-gloss sailing or yachting magazines.

This odd little incident started me thinking about how a word or phrase can be both meaningful and meaningless at the same time. To me, the title of the magazine was meaningless, but to the publisher (and to those who know more than just the slang meaning of gam) the title is incredibly meaningful.

I’m not sure I had ever realized quite so clearly that meaningfulness is an individual thing. Sure, I’ve always understood that’s the case with certain things and in certain contexts. For example, I know that the macaroni-encrusted pencil holder I made for my mother in kindergarten is meaningful to her but to no one else on the planet, and that certain sayings of my father have meaning to me and my sisters that no one else would understand. But when it comes to the meaning of words and phrases used in a wider social context, the fact that a specific meaning can go completely unrecognized (even by those in the intended audience or target market) is remarkable, if somewhat bothersome.

I guess what all this makes me wonder is how many times my readers or audience completely missed my meaning. I guess from now on I’m going to try to make sure I specify (or explain) the meaning I intend. After all, I’d hate for others to jump to the conclusion I did when I thought the title of the magazine was meaningless.

© 2007 Ingrid Sapona


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