What defines a word’s meaning? The dictionary? How people use it? Its history? The imagery people have in mind when they hear or utter it?
As an amateur experiment to explore these questions, I recently sent a text to my educated friends (or so I thought..) asking them to define the word ‘torrid’ for me. It’s a low-frequency word, but one which everyone will hear used a few times a year. Before you read on, try defining torrid yourself. Try to think why you think that it means what you think it means. Explore the nuances of feeling around your conviction. Then make a note of your thoughts.
Back to the experiment. Unusually for one of my text messages, I got some speedy responses. Here they are:
“Uneasy, bothered, out of comfort zone, stormy”
“Gleefully, morally disgusting”
“Hot, short and kind of dirty”
“Emotionally exhuasting, stormy”.
“Dunno but sounds viscousy… my friend’s saying it’s connected to a river, but I think she’s confusing it with torrents”
“A state of being frequently beset by anxiety of difficulty”
“no ideas here… maybe violent, or dirty”
“Bad, stormy: coming from the same place as torment, tornado”
“A bit sleazy, dirty and possibly morally wrong”
“Ok, uh oh, well it rhymes with horrid, and sounds like torrent- is it a gritty, under the counter kind of nasty mess?”
“Harsh, difficult, tough, abrasive”
“Storm-tossed; terrible; the sense of “having-been-through-it”
The torrid Saharan sands For the record, torrid means “hot, parched”. Its secondary meaning is “ardent, emotionally charged”.
1) None of my friends had the slightest notion of torrid’s first meaning.
2) They all to have correctly picked up on the dimension of emotional intensity which is there in the secondary meaning.
3) A sense of negativity and of the illicit is apparent in almost all of these spontaneous definitions (the influence of nearby “horrid” and “torment”?)
4) The notion of sexual illicitness is all over the place. No doubt connected to the common occurrence of the phrase “torrid affair” (which one hears often, despite the fact that no-one I know has ever claimed to have had one).
5) The influence of “torrent” is apparent in references to fluidity, gas, storminess. Perhaps “tornado” and “torment” also play a role in the generally storm-tossed feel of these definitions.
A torrid affair It’s a fascinating insight into how a word’s meaning, once disconnected from its essential root (in this case the Latin word ‘torrere’, which means ‘to parch’) is coloured and distorted by the meanings and emotional connotations and coincidental overlap among similar sounding words (torrent, horrid, torment, tornado) and also contexts of over-use (in this case, presumably, phrases of the kind “they conducted a torrid affair in a Casablancan Hotel”).
If a word is defined by how it is experienced and used, then my friends aren’t wrong. And the current meaning of the word ‘torrid’ cannot therefore be found in dictionaries.
A last thought: since learning the original, primary meaning of “torrid” I’ve had a fresh affection for the word, even when I hear it used by people who don’t have that meaning in mind. It’s similar to the feeling I get when a founder I’d not been aware of comes back to a company he’d been forced out of years before: the whole feel of the word, like the company, gains a feel of authenticity and potency.