Emphasis: special stress laid upon, or importance attached to, anything

I like to overthink single words sometimes, particularly when one keeps following me around in my everyday life. As the new semester gets underway and I introduce myself over and over in all my new classes, I find myself confronting the word “emphasis.” It crops up as professors describe what we will emphasize this semester in our coursework, in the rules they would like to emphasize most, in my own descriptions of myself as I say I am an English major with an emphasis in creative writing.

I’ve often wondered why there is no Creative Writing major, why it must remain a subset of English. We can’t simply major in English; the university requires us to eventually choose one of four emphases. For all intents and purposes, when choosing classes or giving someone the short answer to what we study, we are in fact Creative Writing, Rhetoric, English Education, or Literary Studies Majors. But the language we use (and of course language is vital to us English Emphases Majors) divides us based on which part of English studies we choose as our focus. The language surrounding these courses of study is actually a bit of a mouthful (just imagine capitalizing all that on my diploma: English With an Emphasis in Creative Writing) but they’ve never bothered to change it.

My professors, for their part, have “just wanted to emphasize” so many stipulations and contexts and phrasings that they undermine the weight they desire to lend those things. Not everything can actually be that important; emphasizing every other thing, particularly when three other professors are doing the same thing in all my other introductory lectures, actually ends up losing meaning.

The word even keeps popping up in conversations with my friends about grad school and all the importance placed on the prestige of what we do after graduation. With all this Capital-Letters-Implied EMPHASIS on Advanced Degrees and Networking and Impressive Job Offers and Financial Success, anything less than that is dramatically disappointing…but the funny thing is, I get the feeling that actually attaining All! The! Things! would simply be meeting expectations. We’re expected to excel. We’re expected to outshine. So when we do, these accomplishments that had so much “emphasis” are suddenly just par for the course. Rather like the word itself, they have lost their original weight.

Like many overused words, then, I suppose I should be more intentional about using emphasis in my own life.  As the definition states, emphasis should be special, particular, discerning – not just tossed about willy-nilly.

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