When a word or phrase is invented, coined we might say, there might be a period when just what it means is more than obscure, when what it means might be several different things. What we often don’t know is where a word begins, though I suspect we often assume that there will have been, must have been, perhaps, a single usage that was copied. I suspect too that the meaning behind that single first usage, being specific to time and place, will have been changed, broadened at least, by the copiers, who are applying the new term to different situations in different places.

Words have to be ‘recognised’ in a sense, in their senses, by wider and wider groups before they are really words. Getting into dictionaries is perhaps the final stage of this recognition. Before that is reached they will have belonged, probably to a smaller group within the larger language speaking mass…and probably to several smaller groups, each of which might well be using the word with a slightly different meaning, or emphasis.

What led me to these speculations was that hoary young term ‘flash fiction,’ which has certainly been recognised within our literary dictionaries, but I still regularly meet people who don’t know what it means, or have never even heard it. Not knowing what it means is not limited to non-writers either. We like our definitions, and why wouldn’t we? If someone asks us to make them a chair, we’re pretty much stymied if we don’t know it’s something for sitting on, and turning up with an apple pie, though it might be welcome, would be unlikely to serve the purpose

The reference to flash fictions was on the Thresholds website, and it was in context of literary criticism’s handling of the genre. Now there’s a need for definition, however broad. Is it a good chair, we need to ask? Is it comfortable? Is it sturdy? Is it something we know to be useful, or belief to be beautiful, to borrow William Morris’s assessment criteria?

And where did the term come from in the first place? Why was it needed? Was it, in fact, needed? If the starting point was in noticing that white flash of the single turning page – allegedly the American origins of the term- rather than some quality of the ‘story’ content – which seems to be the British understanding of it, then the ‘flash fiction’ is really just a short story of between one and four printed pages length. That would make it quite an ordinary short story, like ‘The Cobbler Blondeau’ say, from the mid-fifteen hundreds, or Boccaccio’s tales from his Decameron of two centuries earlier, or indeed tales from the Roman Gesta, or from the Buddha, five hundred years BCE! Some need to make a distinction that hadn’t seemed to be needed for two and a half thousand years, then, might have been the prompt for coining that term.

Not only something ‘genuinely’ new calls for a new word. Something seen anew will do too. It’s when we see something as being separate from what it stands among that we need a label for it: not the thing having changed, but our perceptions of it. Neither the mass nor the constituent parts having changed, but only the fineness, the finesse, of our observing. Quite a thought really, and one that must apply to more than only our ‘flash fictions.’OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA