Honoring Barbara Bush: Weigh Every Word for Nuance, Connotation

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A physician advocate for palliative care and dying with dignity posted a blog about Barbara Bush soon after her death. He wrote:

Dignity comes in all shapes and sizes, yet the key to Mrs. Bush’s dying with dignity was her final decision to not return to the hospital.

He also honored the matriarch of the Bush family with these words:

With bright gray hair and keen whit, Barbara Bush symbolized a woman who aged with grace and died with dignity.

Those first seven words brought me to an immediate stop. His choice of “bright gray hair” and “keen whit” did not, in my opinion, convey the respect he intended.

Bright gray hair

Gray is defined as an emotionless, moody color that connotes being detached, neutral, impartial and indecisive. It typically is associated with things that are dull, dirty or dingy, and with loss or depression.

Using bright and gray together is an oxymoron; the terms are contradictory.

Mrs. Bush herself referred to her hair as white. Others described it as “snow white hair.” Here’s how one online source commented on her appearance:

In practically every obituary written about her, there is mention of her signature hairstyle. Her “cloud of white hair,” as USA Today described it, even has an origin story that’s now as big a part of Bush’s legend as her fake pearls.

Bush supposedly went prematurely gray at the age of 28 after dealing with the tragic death of her 3-year-old daughter Robin from leukemia. Along the way, she acquired the nickname “the Silver Fox,” courtesy of her family.

Either white or silver would have been better descriptors than bright gray.

Keen whit

Whit is a small part or amount, the smallest part or particle imaginable.

Wit is mental sharpness and inventiveness; keen intelligence; a natural aptitude for using words and ideas in a quick and inventive way to create humor.

I’m sure the doctor meant wit. Mrs. Bush has been described as “a woman who leavened a strong sense of decency and honor with a self-deprecating wit she employed to great effect.”

Although the physician’s words of course were meant to be complimentary, he might have quickly checked an online dictionary — or better yet (or in addition), he might have run it by another set of eyes, especially considering that Barbara Bush was committed to literacy and raised more than $100 million during her lifetime for the cause.

Spellcheck would not have flagged either word, which reinforces my urging to not rely on it alone to catch errors.

Words matter. They have connotations and nuances of meaning. Choose your words carefully, check definitions, and/or invite review by someone whose language skills you respect — especially if your writing will be the public domain.

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Kathy Watson

Kathy Watson has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. A self-proclaimed ruthless editor, she prefers standard usage guidelines of The Associated Press Stylebook. Her easy-to-use Grammar for People Who Hate Rules helps people write and speak with authority and confidence. She encourages and welcomes questions and comments. (Email)

4 thoughts on “Honoring Barbara Bush: Weigh Every Word for Nuance, Connotation

  1. AvatarCharles Molway

    Kathy, What’s your opinion on the split infinitive, as in the writer’s “decision to not return”?
    I have read that in some circumstances (to avoid awkwardness?) it is acceptable. I think not.
    Also, the phrase “all shapes and sizes” appears to be a slap at Mrs. Bush’s weight, even though we can be sure that was not the writer’s intention.

    1. AvatarKathy AdminTemp

      Charles, a colleague recently sent me an article from The Economist on splitting infinitives. It will be the topic of my next post. Stay tuned.

  2. AvatarElizabeth Brewer

    Gray is defined as “of a color between white and black; having a neutral hue”, though it may have other negative connotations, such as a gray day or a gray mood. It is only popular culture’s fear of aging that makes certain people uncomfortable with gray hair, feeling that it must be spoken of with only with euphemisms. Perhaps the obituary writer had in mind Proverb 16:31 “Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is attained in the way of righteousness.”

    1. AvatarKathy AdminTemp

      Beth, I have friends with gray (or graying) hair who proudly claim that they’ve earned every single one!

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