Words Matter

“The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and lightning bug”   – Mark Twain

Continuing to read Alan Webber’s book Rules of Thumb: 52 truths for winning at business without losing yourself – his rule #29 is titled as this post is titled: Words Matter.

Two quotes made me chuckle – and they are fitting – one is the above quote from Twain, the other is:

“If you think learning your vocabulary words doesn’t make a difference, try going into a store and asking for toilet paper when you only know the word for sandpaper”

-Webber’s highschool German teacher Roy Battenberg.

The other little excerpt in this rule is a bit more ominous as Webber highlights some of the language around the most recent financial meltdown. Specifically, some of the language employed by banks such as changing “second mortgage” to “equity access”. Borrowers were then risking their homes on something that sounded much less risky. The results of which will be felt for a long time to come, especially in the U.S.

Of course there is a certain amount of buyer-beware; for example, do your own research – however there is a long history of deferring our questions to those apparently ‘smarter’ than ourselves – doctors, lawyers, bankers, scientists university professors, etc. (“they probably know best…I’ll just keep my mouth shut”). As well as deferring speaking up against government policies and actions – “don’t rock the boat”.

But then there are some brutal examples of trying to make something terrible sound innocuous, such as the widely employed “collateral damage” to refer to innocent citizens killed by bombings in places such as Iraq or Afghanistan.

My humble opinion at work here again… word use is vitally important – and the simpler, more honest the better. How can the average joe or jill start questioning the language of “science”, “management” and “bureaucratese” if they are most likely to be buried in ‘facts’, ‘numbers’, and whatever else. Or overused empty language that simply fogs interest and discussion.

As I was working through this post I remembered writing down a quote in a journal in 2002 from Canadian author and thinker John Ralston Saul. I went and dug through my journals and oddly enough I was reading Ralston Saul’s book Voltaire’s Bastards as I was traveling across Canada by train in mid-September of 2002. I was traveling to Ottawa for the inaugral Canadian Environmental Awards as I was one of the finalists as a result of my efforts to undertake The Wild Salmon Cycle.

Initially I had thought about riding my bike out for the awards – you know… be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. (Easier said then done – took the train out, but flew back as I had to get back for my younger sister’s wedding. I was her maid -of-honor.)

Ralston Saul’s quote:

Their [professionals] standard procedure when faced by outside questioning is to avoid answering and instead to discourage, even to frighten off the questioner, by implying that he is uninformed, inaccurate, superficial and, invariably overexcited. If the questioner has some hierarchical power, the expert may feel obliged to answer with greater care. For example, he may release a minimum amount of information in heavy dialect and accompany it with apologies for complexity, thus suggesting that the questioner is not competent to understand anything more.And if the questioner must be answered but need not be respected – a journalist for example, or a politician – the expert may release a flood of incomprehensible data, thus drowning out debate while pretending to be cooperative.

And even if someone does manage to penetrate the confusion of material, he will be obliged to argue against the expert in a a context of such complexity that the public, to whom he is supposed to be communicating understanding, will quickly lose interest. In other words by drawing the persistent outsider into his box, the expert will have rendered him powerless.

This quote has stuck in my mind over the years – as well as played out to perfection when I have begun questioning “experts” in various forums.

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