It’s all a matter of how you see it. In what context you see it. From what distance. And how much it contrasts with what’s around it.

This is the word of my life: focal. More than almost any other word.

No, wait. These are the words of my life: focal and focal.

Focal, in English (and French and Spanish and Portuguese), means ‘of or relating to focus’. It comes from Latin focalis.

Focal, in Irish, means ‘word’. Is é focal an focal i gcóir focail. (‘Word is the word for a word.’) It looks like it could come from Latin vocalis (source of English vocal), but it doesn’t – although it is distantly related. It comes from a Proto-Celtic word that traces back to a Proto-Indo-European root for ‘voice’, wṓkʷs. Along with the Latin vox set, that root also led to the Irish word fuaim, ‘sound, noise’, and to many words in many other Indo-European languages, such as German erwähnen ‘mention’ and Dutch gewagen ‘report’.

But not to focus and focalis. The match of English focal and Irish focal is a coincidence. But it’s fitting. How do you know what a word means? By contrast with the meanings of other words. You can be clearer on its meaning when the definition is more distinctive and has sharper contrasts. How do you know when an image is in focus? When it has clearer, more distinctive, sharper contrasts.

In words and in pictures, you focus on subjects. Other things may be in focus as well depending on their relation to the focal plane – and depending on the focal characteristics of the device you’re using.

If I put a lens on my camera with a short focal length, I get more things in the picture, and a wider range of things will be in sharp focus. I can also get closer to the subject more easily. The longer my focal length, the narrower my field of view, the fewer things will be in sharp focus, and yet the more distance there will probably be between me and the subject.

Short focal length: more in the picture, more things more in focus

Longer focal length: narrower angle of view, less detail in things that aren’t focal…

…Shift your focal point and see things quite differently.

Use of lexemes of greater character count correlates with increased emotional distance and decreased topical inclusivity. Which means if I use longer words, on average, I will be writing in a more detached manner, but also one that excludes more other things, because long words are the hallmark of specialized technical writing and lofty academic theory. When I use short words, I am situated more in the world. Each word is used in more places and has more associations and will lead me to think of more things, even to the extent that it becomes difficult to isolate one subject. (This is why I don’t often do tastings of short, common words: they would take too much time to write and would cover too much ground.) So focal length is like focal length.

It’s tempting to make a quip about a picture being worth a thousand words and a word being worth a thousand pictures. But focal is not focal. There is no exchange rate; they’re different media. You can’t translate words into pictures or vice versa just as you can’t translate a soufflé into a pas de deux or vice versa. You can only inspire one with the other. And, with words as with pictures, how you understand what you’re seeing will depend on the context you see it in and how it contrasts with what’s around it.

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