Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Word Choice Matters

I work for a global company. The upper levels of management are in the process of setting up career ladders for the various functions within the company (I just found out today that, for some inexplicable reason, I'm in the Engineering Ladder) and so set up international teams to wrangle the details out.

We were fortunate enough to have a couple of people from our site on those teams, and they each had the same thing to say about the process. The most time taken up in the whole process had to do with the names of each rung on the ladder. That's right, the biggest wrangling sessions had more to do with what to name my level of expertise, and less with how to define it in terms of knowledge, skills and attributes.

For example, the term "director" in parts of Europe and Asia means that you sit on the Board of Directors of a company, and no amount of redefining is going to change that. It's a cultural issue, as well as a linguistic one. And this isn't just a corporate thing. One of the most commonly known examples, from an American standpoint, would be the fact that what the British call "chips" we would call "fries", British "biscuits" are US "cookies", etc. It's a trivial example, but getting a Londoner to call a biscuit a cookie would take some work. He might agree that it can be called that, and even agree to call it that when talking about it, but he's still going to think of it as a biscuit. A Japanese executive is going to think of a director as a member of the Board of Directors, no matter how much you try to redefine the issue.

Word choice matters.

Look at the evolution/creation debate. The average American uses the term "theory" to mean something quite a bit different from the scientific definition. This lets people who are trying to play silly-buggers with science get in cheap shots, by playing to Joe Six-pack's terminology, and using science's jargon against it.

But the place where I see that this hits home the most right now, though, is in politics. Republicans may have one of the worst platforms in recent memory, but it doesn't matter, because they know how to use soccer moms' and Nascar dads' vocabularies against them. The inheritance tax is called the death tax. Believing that women don't have a right to choose what happens with their own bodies is being "pro-life" or supporting "the culture of life", as opposed to being "pro-choice". This casts choicers as being "anti-life". That's fallacious, to say the least. I don't think very many people are "pro-death".

As to the "culture of life", well, the Republicans stole that term from Pope John Paul II, who was the first to use it. When he said it, he meant he was anti-abortion, anti-euthanasia, anti-death penalty, anti-war. Republicans quickly co-opted the term for their own use, since it flows off the tongue, and makes a good soundbite. Of course, if you look at the Republican political platform, it only applies to about half of what they support. But it doesn't matter, because it sounds good.

In a perfect world, my meaning would be apparent, despite my word choice. In a perfect world, I could convey everything I'm thinking and feeling without having to quibble over "director vs. team leader" kinds of issues. But in the cultural mish-mash that the civilized world has become, I have to be more and more careful about how I speak, and more importantly, what I speak.

I suppose I should take Edgar Allan Poe's advice: "The true genius shudders at incompleteness - and usually prefers silence to saying something which is not everything it should be. " I'm no genius, but I should strive to say things that are everything they should be. And so should you.

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"Loyalty to petrified opinion never broke a chain or freed a human soul..." -- Mark Twain

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Fire does not wait for the sun to be hot,

Nor the wind for the moon, to be cool.

-- the Zenrin Kushu