The Meanings of a Word

I got an email recently from my grandmother asking me to reconsider changing my blog name to anything but “asylum.” The word, she said, is just too heavy with the history of abuse of mentally ill. She told me about how Mental Health America uses a bell in its logo to symbolize freedom from asylums–the bell symbolically being made of the chains that asylums used to restrain patients.


Her email caught me off-guard for a couple of reasons. I had been browsing writing quotes looking for something that would work as a title for my blog, and after coming up with “writing asylum,” I kind of forgot about what the quote said. For me, “asylum” means a safe haven. In classic Greek, it meant “refuge,” and in classic Latin it meant “sanctuary.”  Even in 1776, it meant “a benevolent institution to shelter some class of persons.”  But it is also strongly linked with the mentally ill–the quote I got my title from even says “personal insane asylum.” And so I see where my grandmother is coming from: by using this quote and this name, I’m associating myself and writers with being mentally ill.

Since getting my grandmother’s email, I’ve given a lot of thought to whether I want to keep “asylum” in the title of my blog or not. I don’t want writers to think of this as a negative space where they’ll be treated with chains. Nor do I want to make light of mental illness by somehow claiming writers suffer the same fate. But what I do want to communicate with “asylum” is that this is a sanctuary; that writers can feel isolated and anxious and that I want to provide a safe place to talk about the challenges of our lifestyle. So I’ve decided to keep the word, and maybe that choice will help us reclaim asylum to a positive connotation.

This is the type of deliberation writers must face every day. I’m reviewing copy edits with an author right now, and for every word the copyeditor suggested a change, the author has mulled, experimented, and worried until she has decided on the best choice. Many words, like asylum, come with multiple meanings or connotations, and that is a fact that cannot be changed. What we can do is consider whether it is the best word for other reasons–the meanings we intend, the rhythm of the sentence, the look on the page–and then be prepared for readers to have their own interpretations.

Speaking of excellent word choice, These Things I Know is now available on Amazon. This is a creative memoir (meaning it focuses on style and also includes imaginative essays and stories) by Jessica Karbowiak that I was lucky enough to co-edit at Pink Fish Press. Every word here has been carefully measured to create a beautiful, quiet, shimmering surface over a deep story line. Buy it now on Amazon!


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