Poignant or Pointed?

I’m taking a sabbatical from writing new blog posts. You’ll be seeing some re-runs and old favorites for the next little while. You can always write me back with suggestions or ideas just by responding to this email!

Warning: word nerdery ahead.

“Poignant” is a word I love. It comes from the Latin pungere, to pierce or sting. When we describe something as poignant, we mean that it has a piercing or moving sadness. There is almost a physical pain to the emotional impact. For example, “The melody was a poignant reminder of times past.”

We don’t have another word in English that does quite the same thing. Poignant is unique, and uniquely helpful to convey a certain feeling.

In the past few years I’ve been hearing people use the word “poignant” to mean something like “incisive” or “to the point.” Example: “Her argument was poignant,” or “That was quite a poignant discussion.” Merriam-Webster cites this as a secondary definition: “being to the point, apt.”

Many words and phrases morph and change over time, picking up different connotations like velcro picking up lint. As you can see from the Merriam-Webster definition, it’s acceptable to use poignant to mean “apt” or “pointed.” But to me, that simply muddies the water. What do you really mean, then, when you say that the moment was poignant? Do you mean it was achingly sad or that it was to the point?

So here’s my plea. What if we agree to use “apt,” “incisive,” or “to the point” when that’s what we mean, and let poignant wait in its velvet box for the moments when we really need it, when no other word will do.

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