Words and how we compose them are about all we have in written language to produce the thoughts and images that will carry our experience and reflection to others. That is why many teachers and critics are so conservative—or better, conserving—about the proper use of words: language is a surprisingly blunt instrument for conveying the subtleties we think and feel, and so to grind down the distinctions and definitions of words is to work against ourselves and the voice we’d like to have in our world.
I came across recently a curious example of what I’m referring to in an essay on the fairy tale Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Fairy tales are strange things, at once for a child and the child-now-adult we become, and the author was discussing the implications of just how it was that Snow White, a king’s daughter, awoke before the Prince. The original Grimm tale has it that the Prince’s attendants stumbled when they were carrying the glass case in which the beautiful young woman slept, dislodging a piece of the poisoned apple that still remained in her mouth and so awakening the unconscious Princess. The Disney version explains things quite differently. There, the author says, it is a fortuitous kiss that awakened Snow White. But just what is a fortuitous kiss?
Our thoughts, and here the profundities of the tale, have their effect in the accuracy and implications of language, and we readers have every right—some would say every responsibility—to think closely about exactly what someone has written, for language has two sides to it: what one intends to say and what is actually said. The ideal, of course, is to get the two to match, but when it strikes us that the fit isn’t quite right, we have a real chance not simply to find fault, but to go more deeply into what someone is actually saying. That, I think, is a better way to understand grammatical, or what is called formal, analysis: we’re looking closely on the outside to find a way inside.
Usage manuals will regularly complain and proclaim that fortuitous does not mean fortunate. A fortuitous happening is something that happens by chance; it’s inadvertent, accidental. If I win the lotto tomorrow, it will be an entirely fortuitous outcome. Now it will also be a fortunate one, I can assure you, but right here is where the guardians of language start jumping up and down. The word fortuitous has taken on the added meaning of fortunate, and that risks a confusion, for not everything that happens by chance brings good, which is the very definition of the word fortunate. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary online says that the confusion goes back a hundred years and that the double meaning is here to stay. We must have been a more optimistic sort a century ago.
But a fortuitous kiss? Well, that either means a fortunate kiss, one that brought good to both Snow White herself and to the unconscious Snow White in all of us, or it means a chance or inadvertent kiss. Now I’m not sure I know what an inadvertent kiss is, for there’s usually a lot of intentionality behind one, unless what was chancy about it in the Snow White story was the fact that it would romantically happen at all: the chanciness of fate was transferred to the Prince’s sweet Disney kiss.
And therein lies a difference of some importance higher than grammar. Is the greater to which we awaken always better? Is to be, like Snow White, more conscious necessarily to be more aware of how fortunate things ultimately are? That is what a fortuitous kiss would seem to suggest if fortuitous means fortunate here. But it matters less whether an author slipped in the strict use of an adjective than whether we, as critical readers, catch a chance to ask other questions prompted by the language before us. That, I think, has a chance of awakening us all.