Meet My Problematic Word

Hello, wonderful SEers! Mae here with word problems, cats, and a call for opinions. If that sounds like a good combination, I hope you’ll take the time to weigh in with your comments.

Let me trot out the situation:

Have you ever been stuck for the right word? Ever think you have the right word only to have someone tell you it doesn’t fit? Today, I’d like you to weigh in on a specific word. One that’s been problematic for me, and that continues to rear its troublesome head in my writing.

I think we can all agree that different regions of the country, even the world, frequently use different words to express the same idea. A few examples of these include soda vs. pop; asphalt vs. macadam; shore vs. beach, etc. These are colloquialisms. If you’re in the U.S., you open the “trunk” of your car. In the U.K. you open the “boot.” When I use a word or phrase common to my area and an editor flags me on it, I understand the reasoning.

black and white cat looking toward camera as if thinkingYou’ll also find words with different spellings based on region—tire vs. tyre and color vs. colour. Pretty obvious. But what about a word with multiple meanings? Can regional interpretation play a role there as well?

I’m anxious to hear what you think.

Anxious as in eager, not anxious as in afraid.

Meet my problematic word.

I’m trying to be more conscious of how I use “anxious” as my editor has flagged me on it more than once. This is where I’m curious about opinions. How do you interpret the following examples:

Sunlight streamed through the bedroom window, herald of a new day. Dana tossed the blankets aside and swung her feet to the floor, anxious to start the morning.

Connie dug into the bag from the bookstore, anxious to lose herself in the pages of her newest purchase.

Do you read “eager” where “anxious” appears? In my neck of the woods, using anxious in this way is perfectly acceptable, even common. I’m starting to think, however, it’s as odd as calling asphalt macadam.  I understand that anxious means fearful or apprehensive, but I also think its use relates to the context of the moment. Is it really so odd to use the word to express eagerness? Am I way off base?

black cat looking toward camera

It’s a versatile word, one I would also place to express apprehension:

Violet chewed on her fingernail, anxiously awaiting the arrival of the police officer.

Would you use it both ways or only one way? Can you think of another word that falls into the same arena as anxious, where one interpretation is judged more popular than another? Do you have problematic words in your writing, or words that you tend to be conscious of how you use them? Are you anxious to share? 😊

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73 thoughts on “Meet My Problematic Word

  1. Because I have an anxiety disorder, I associate ‘anxious’ with stress, tension, and nervousness. That being said, when I read your sentences, the meaning was perfectly clear. Context is everything. Many authors use words in an unconventional way, but the meaning is clear because of the setting that has been created. If the word were alone on a page, I would not think ‘eager,’ but I think your sentences explain themselves. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for sharing that, Yvette. If, in context, you see anxious as meaning eager, then it proves context is key. If I had an an anxiety disorder, I would probably view “anxious” in stand alone phrasing in a negative way as weeks. I’ve learned so much from the comments everyone has shared on this posts. Thanks for chiming in and adding to the discussion!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I often say “I’m anxious to see what happens.” It this context, I’m anticipating, but I’m not fearful. I’m really interested in what’s going to happen. This is definitely used a lot in my neck of the woods. Words CAN have different meanings. When you talk about regional meanings, you have to think about where your characters are, not necessarily where you are. How are the words used in their area? That’s why I like to write stories set in the Southeast. I know the lingo. 🙂

    I got called out by an editor for using “sick at my stomach”. In talking to others, I found that, apparently, that’s used ONLY in my area. Everyone else says “sick to my stomach”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The regional lingo really trips us up, doesn’t it, Lauralynn? I have to admit that I’ve never heard “sick at my stomach.” If I came across that in fiction, it would definitely give me pause. 🙂 I like your reference to where your characters are and not where you are. Most of my settings are based in the northeast for that reason–it’s an area I know well and don’t have to research, Stephen King sets most of his books in Maine, and Kevin O’Brien set’s most of his in Seattle, so it appears that we are in good company when we stick to what we know.
      It’s wonderful to see you here on Story Empire! 🙂

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  3. Good question and great discussion, Mae. When I see the word anxious, I’m brought into the character’s emotional state. So, even if I understand the character is eager to do something, I’m also looking for deeper discomfort or drivenness. “Anxiety” is a word that (for me) is layered with interpretations, and it always evokes a pause. Thank you for this stimulating discussion! Have a great weekend!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad you chimed in, Gwen. I think it’s great to get varying opinions from others and kick around thoughts. I definitely see how anxious is more readily interpreted in a negative context rather than a positive after this post. Thanks for sharing in the discussion and enjoy your weekend!

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  4. Pingback: Did Someone Say Friday? | From the Pen of Mae Clair

  5. I always use “anxious” as a description for “anxiety”. I had no problem reading it, but my first thoughts are along the anxiety route. Everyone has great comments on this. And I always have to decide to use gray or grey. I’ve even used Aussie/UK words when in the POV of an Aussie character vs the US words, and the US words when in the POV of an American character. Good point about regional usage! One of my writing sisters couldn’t make it through a book because the author used “soda” instead of “pop” in the setting, when the reader knew the regional word is “pop”. It can get tricky when trying to take regional stuff into account. Makes me think of the book “How to Talk Minnesotan”. I never paid much attention until after I read the book, and was able to “hear” the colloquialisms. Uff da!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I just found a new exclamation to use–uff da! It sounds Norse 🙂

      Anxious in the context of anxiety seems to be the most popular context judging by the comments here.

      Taking POV into account is an excellent conservation. If I’,m reading an Aussie character I want to hear their voice in both dialogue and observations/POV.

      As for soda vs. pop, that might be something every writer should research depending on where they set their novel. I know there are many other examples like that too. Probably why I keep the bulk of my books set not too far from ,my area. I’m too used to saying “soda” and would definitely screw that one up if I moved the location further mid-west. Uff da! (I like that as much as the word squonk :))

      Liked by 1 person

      • I love the word Squonk so much I think there should be an official “Hug a Squonk Day” (the poor things could use a hug). You know how I am about cryptids.

        Nice to know I was on track with Uff da. I’m going to walk around saying that now, you realize! 😀

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Mae, I use it much like you. I never gave it any thought otherwise. Interesting reading the comments of others, as well. In Newfoundland, we have many sayings that don’t translate well. It was funny discovering this fact when we moved to Ontario 12 years ago. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Natalie, I love the difference in regional expressions and those that vary from country to country. It’s so fascinating! And I never gave my use of anxious any thought until my editor flagged me on it, and I had a deer-in-the-headlights moment. Now I find myself using different words to express eagerness, although anxious does still slip through from time to time from sheer reflex! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. This is why I stick to writing fantasy in my odd little world where words can be mixed and matched, although you do still meet the problem of making sure folk know just what point you are trying to make.
    I do like to take risks with phonetic spellings to highlight some characters’ accents or quirks.
    My admiration goes out to writers who work in our contemporary world, having to work within all those conventions….Wow! Dedication and detail.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello! Although we have a bit more freedom in certain genres, you’re absolutely right that we still have to ensure the reader follows our train of thought. I like the way you take risks with phonetic spellings to highlight an accent. I wouldn’t have thought of doing that. Excellent idea!

      As a reader of fantasy (and writer of contemporary mysteries), I do think there’s a bit more wiggle room when working in the fantasy genre, but you still have your own set of details to adhere to. Some may be invented, but they have to be consistent. I imagine a fantasy author doing a lot of note taking as they create their wondrous realms! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve been wandering about ‘my’ world for about twenty years! And am still trying to figure out how it works🙃!
        In my latest effort I’ve played safe in that all my central characters have rudimentary knowledge, conflicting ideas or complete misunderstanding as to how ‘things’ works. This allows for a great deal of room for manoeuvre and an opportunity to gradually draw a sense of cohesion as they gather experience.
        (Well that’s the plan…..)

        Liked by 1 person

  8. I never would have thought twice about using anxious the same way you used it. I’ve read it in books that way and I’ve used it that way. I suppose I can see the argument for not using it, but it seems silly. People should be able to use context clues.

    From vocabulary.com: “When you are anxious, you are very concerned or worried, but it can also refer to when you are quite interested in something. You might be anxious to improve your performance in math class after falling asleep during a big test.
    The word anxious has generally been used to describe when someone is very concerned about something. In medical terms, to be anxious means feeling uneasy and worried but not always with a specific focus. On the other hand, being anxious can also mean that you are very eager. One meaning is negative and the other is positive!”

    Another point – people learn words from reading. Shying away from words like “roil,” or using the positive connotation of “anxious,” doesn’t do anyone any good, even if you’re writing for adults. Especially if you’re writing for adults! If adults can’t parse the meaning of new words, well… I don’t know what to say to that.

    I’d say that to your editor next time. 😉

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks for weighing in with your thoughts, Laura, and especially for sharing the definition above! I do think the meaning of a word should be able to be determined by the context in which it is used, but I guess some uses are more acceptable than others. I think in the case of my editor it might be a stylistic rule of the publishing house.

      Anxious is such a strange word in that (as you noted) the meaning can be either negative or positive. I don’t think there are many words that fall into that category, but I’d love to trip over a list someday. At least I know I’m not alone in viewing “anxious” in a positive way! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I never would have thought twice about using anxious the same way you used it. I’ve read it in books that way and I’ve used it that way. I suppose I can see the argument for not using it, but it seems silly. People should be able to use context clues.

    From vocabulary.com: “When you are anxious, you are very concerned or worried, but it can also refer to when you are quite interested in something. You might be anxious to improve your performance in math class after falling asleep during a big test.
    The word anxious has generally been used to describe when someone is very concerned about something. In medical terms, to be anxious means feeling uneasy and worried but not always with a specific focus. On the other hand, being anxious can also mean that you are very eager. One meaning is negative and the other is positive!”

    Another point – people learn words from reading. Shying away from words like “roil,” or using the positive connotation of “anxious,” doesn’t do anyone any good, even if you’re writing for adults. Especially if you’re writing for adults! If adults can’t parse the meaning of new words, well… I don’t know what to say to that.

    I’d say that to your editor next time. 😉

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  10. I’ve heard anxious used both ways, and certainly can tell from context what is meant, but, personally, I only use it when the person is worried or scared. Anxious means having anxiety in my mind, so that’s where I’d go with it. UNLESS it’s in dialogue, and then all bets are off, because I always try to use what my character would. Some of the folks I write have more education and speak differently from others. Some use a lot of slang, and more regional phrases. So that can have an impact. However, everyone knows what eager means. People aren’t usually eager for bad things to happen, so if my character was eager for the day to begin, expect something fun or interesting, then I’d definitely go with that. (Of course, now that I’ve said that, I’ll have to look through my books carefully to be sure I haven’t done just the opposite somewhere, without thinking about it. Doh!)

    Liked by 3 people

    • Dialogue is a great example, Marcia. There are so many factors that play into the way a character speaks. And now that I think about it, maybe I interpret “anxious” as meaning eager because that is the way I speak. That could be my regional dialect bleeding into the character instead of letting him/her speak for themselves. Or maybe it’s just my voice in the narrative. Either way, something to think about and be on the lookout for!

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

      Liked by 1 person

    • And then there’s the fact that a person could be both eager and anxious at the same time. Anxiously awaiting something he’s eager to get, for instance, could mean he’s filled with anxiety that he might not get the item by a certain deadline. So. Now what? Hahahaha.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Personally, it doesn’t bother me to use anxious for eager. However, I can see where it might confuse readers a bit. Perhaps the precision of eager is more acceptable. Keen, excited, willing, ready and enthusiastic might help with usage variation – again applying to a specific sentence where nuance of the variation helps convey mood/emotion with specificity.

    Liked by 3 people

  12. Hi, Mae. Good “word choice” question–anxious or eager? Personally, I would use eager when the character “Can’t wait!” and anxious when the character is worried or apprehensive. You bring up great points on regional use etc.; but, for me, I think it’s best to write for the universal (not regional) reader in this particular case. Words, words, wonderful words! 🙂 xo

    Liked by 3 people

    • Bette, I believe my editor had the same thought (writing for the universal reader) when she pointed the problem out to me. It’s made me more aware of which words I use and how I use them. What I found mind-boggling was that the rest of the world didn’t interpret words the same way I did (in my region). Imagine! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      • When writing Dog Bone Soup, I really had to pay attention to that universal reader… New Englanders are strange critters when it comes to using words. Of course, I love them for their use of words like ‘wicked’ (meaning ‘very, very’ in New England jargon). Imagine it…Words and people are wonders and they never cease to amaze me. 🙂 xo

        Liked by 1 person

  13. I think your usage is perfectly acceptable. However; if someone is paying me for my book, they can have it their way. I wonder if the same editor would bat an eye over slang usage of words like: hot, fat, cool, etc.

    Here’s one for you. I noticed your comment to John, and I always spell the word g-r-e-y. I like the way it looks, and it can be spelled either way.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. I think anxious has taken on a negative connotation, but I can read it as eager when the context of the sentence leads me that way. That said, if my editor kept marking it, I’d probably just rewrite it.

    My problem word is kind of different. I like to use the word “roil” when I’m talking about severe churning (like nausea or storm clouds). But I’ve had beta readers mark it and change it to “roll” because they think I misspelled it. I’ve had that problem with “aether” also. I guess my question to you is this: Do you change your perfect but less common words to something not as good but better known to encompass a wider base of readers? Personally, I try to avoid words like “bloviate” that I know my teenage kids wouldn’t get (teens aren’t my ideal audience, but my kids have advanced vocabularies, so I use them as a benchmark), but I keep words like “roil” and “aether” because I assume most people will know the word, understand it from context, or if they’re really motivated, look it up. What do you do?

    Liked by 3 people

    • Those are great questions, Staci. Interestingly, roil is a word that I use in the context you mentioned. I love how descriptive it is in conveying sensation. Aether, I switch to ether, but I think that one might be more dictated by era as Widdershins mentioned below. Bloviate is one I would definitely skip (I had to look it up!).

      For the most part, I stick to the words I prefer to use as long as the surrounding context clarifies the meaning. When I’m reading I will rarely look up a word, unless the author uses it repeatedly and the meaning isn’t clear. When I want to cling to a word (and I know it will be problematic for my readers) I fall back on the “sometimes you have to kill your babies” way of thinking. So hard, but sometimes the sacrifice has to be made.

      I was reading an article a few weeks ago where anxious was used to show eagerness and that prompted the idea for this post. I guess there are still a few of us who see it as a two-sided coin 🙂

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  15. Our choice of words is also predicated by the era we’re writing in, and from. My language in my first drafts tends to be a bit ‘old fashioned’ in the sentence construction department. The trick is, I suppose, to not lose our ‘voice’ in order to satisfy editorial clarity.

    ‘Anxious’ worked for me in all the examples you set, but simply by it’s inclusion in the sentence I placed the story in a specific historical time period without even thinking about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Excellent points! I hadn’t considered a specific time period as being relative, but that makes perfect sense. I also like your statement about not losing voice while trying to satisfy situations like this. \

      I have a tendency to write in an old-fashioned way as well, so perhaps that explains some of my problems. Thanks for the insightful comments!

      Liked by 1 person

  16. I wouldn’t use the word anxious in the first two contexts but would rather use another word like eager. I would associate anxious with a negative situation but, I agree, that word usages and meanings and even spellings differ world wide. When I had my most recent book edited, they asked me if I wanted UK or US English [smile].

    Liked by 2 people

    • Haha! It’s so weird to think that English translates into UK or US, but there are so many differences, it’s understandable.

      Anxious does appear to be most widely used to denote a negative situation or emotion. I have to start thinking “eager” instead of “anxious.”
      Thanks for sharing, Robbie!

      Liked by 1 person

  17. Very good post and question! As an Aussie writer I’m PLAGUED with thoughts of translation and colloquialisms in my writing. Even to the point where my word processor freaks out when I use an S instead of a Z in words like standardise. But I digress. Anxious in your examples definitely come across to me as apprehensive. I’d think that Dana has something kind of awful to face in her day and Connie is about to read something diabolical in her book. Maybe it’s an Aussie thing, or just a me thing, but yes, anxious to me = eek! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is good to know, Jess. What you said about anxious backs up what my editor has been telling me. I think the way I interpret it is based on regional usage. Now I catch myself when I use it and rethink how it will be received by my reader. Of course, my editor never lets it get that far, LOL.

      And I can imagine the trouble you must go through with the S instead of Z and extra vowels in words like colour. That’s a lot of catching to do! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  18. I have often used anxious (both in writing and in casual conversation) to indicate eagerness. I recently came across a smiliar situation when I referred to The Emotion Thesaurus. They define anxiety as “Mental apprehension and unease; a sense of foreboding.” That certainly didn’t fit where I wanted to go with the scene I was writing. Instead, I looked up anticipation and went from there.

    To me, anxious is also eagerness, but I’ve learned to be more careful how I use the word in writing.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Great example with The Emotion Thesaurus, Joan.

      Like you, I’m definitely learning to be more careful with how I use the word. It’s amazing how differently things can be interpreted, especially based on region. My editor mad ea good call, but for me it was a “wow” moment, in that I never realized the problem before!

      Liked by 2 people

  19. I think your use of anxious is fine in each of the examples and I’d say in the UK that would be common. Both uses of the word are fine in the different contexts and don’t display a feeling of anxiety and worry when jumping out of bed.
    xxx Huge Hugs xxx

    Liked by 1 person

    • David, it’s nice to know these examples would fly in the UK and not just might small corner of the world. At least if I ever make it across the pond, I won’t have to worry about usage there, LOL!

      Thanks for sharing your opinion 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  20. Can’t think of problematic words that I use, but I do use anxious differently. Usually as a synonym for nervous or stressed. Never thought of it as a positive, which might be due to my family typically using it as a negative. Being told that you look anxious was typically a show of concern or another version of ‘calm down’.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Charles, you and your family appear to be in the majority judging by the comments here. It’s just so strange to think that the SAME word can apply to two highly different emotions–eagerness and anxiety. But then English is a warped language as we all know! 🙂

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      • It could be regional and cultural though. I can see how anxious works for eager or excited. Possibly one reason the other is more common is the connection to anxiety. That’s become a very big mental health issue over the years, so that could have pushed the definition/usage more to the negative. Plenty of words change meaning after they get used for a different thing or one definition more than others. Keep thinking about how gay also means happy, but you really don’t hear it used that way anymore.

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      • Excellent points, Charles. Words can change meanings over time. I can’t remember the last time I heard someone use the word gay to denote happiness. And pointing out the upswing in mental health issues is a great insight to how anxious may have shifted toward a more negative meaning. I remember hearing that awful once meant “awe-inspiring.” I can’t imagine anyone using it that way today!

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  21. I agree with John… anxious conveys anxiety I would say. My problems are a little different… I have reached the age when my vocabulary is shrinking and I have trouble thinking of any word on a bad day…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, no! Well that made me smile. Surely, it can’t be that bad! 🙂

      I often struggle with finding just the right word, which frequently slows down the speed of my writing. At least now I don’t ponder over “anxious” like I used to. I think you, John, and others have proven popular opinion is slanted toward using the word to convey a negative emotion. Lesson learned!

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  22. Big questions, Mae. My meaning of anxious carries with it symptoms that the character can feel and the reader can imagine. So when I jump out of bed anxious to start something, that something had better be important enough to warrant anxiety. (usually not a positive reaction) I think eager works where anxious seems overdone. When awaiting a police officer anxious seems to fit. You are not alone there are many words in this category but a little too early here for me to think of them. Thanks for getting the brain working so early.

    Liked by 3 people

    • heehee. I’m just thrilled you took the time to weigh in, John, considering all you have to distract you right now!
      I think you wrapped up your thoughts very well, while my gray matter is still puttering along at an early morning crawl. I guess I’m not anxious to start my day 🙂

      Your viewpoint appears to be in sync with most of the readers here–and my editor’s. It would be interesting to take a look at other words that fit this category as I’m sure this can’t be the only problem child. Then again, it doesn’t seem to be so much a problem for others as it is for me. I’m definitely aware of how I use the word now!

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