Monday, October 7, 2013

Say What You Mean

I’ve written before about how choice of words reveals the presenter’s position on a subject or reveals a prejudice.  It could be a marketing trick to increase the appeal of a product, service or political agenda.

Use of the word home has become a pet peeve of mine.  Realtors promoted this alternative to house because it sounds warmer and friendlier, and everyone seems to have adopted it to the point where we read of abandoned homes, foreclosed homes, efforts to redevelop vacant homes.  Can it really be a home if no one lives there?  Can’t a rental with a loving family be as much a home as any house?  Is it accurate to change townhouse, referring to an architectural style, to townhome in advertising material or news stories?

Similarly, when someone tries to sell you “window treatments” or “eyewear,” you are probably paying more than you would for identical curtains or glasses.  

Those who moved from Mexico to the US without permission are described in various ways.  Choices include:  illegal alien, illegal immigrant, undocumented worker, undocumented immigrant, unauthorized immigrant, (just plain) immigrant, or migrant (implying a move, but not a border crossing).  In some cases, the different terms reflect a progression of public opinion or a political bias.

My new e-mail gives a choice of line spacing.  What was once called narrow, regular or wide spacing has been changed to slim, regular or relaxed – like e-mail is the same as blue jeans!  Perhaps the subliminal message is that the obesity epidemic will be cured not by healthier habits but by adopting a new vocabulary.  Perhaps they can’t say what they mean for fear of offending someone. To me this seems crazy.

In an art supply catalog I saw an ad for paint to be used for “contemporary urban calligraphy.”  Is that a polite way of saying graffiti?

Professionals use words to enhance their own importance by diminishing ours.  Medical professionals call us patients.   Lawyers and consultants call us clients (and the client term seems to be spreading.)  If instead they used the word “customer,” it's possible that respect, consideration and the level of service might improve.

Profanity, like antibiotics, loses effectiveness by overuse.  Any shock or added impact is lost.  It's no longer saved for "special occasions" to add emphasis, but dropped into casual conversations, written communications - often by means of not-so-clever abbreviations, and tossed around everywhere except where the FCC specifically bans it.  (Some movies contain little more than 25 minutes of plot and dialog, the rest being profanity and special effects.)  It's cool not to be shocked, and soon no one is shocked.  So it has devolved into the equivalent of troglodytical grunts.

Critical thinking rebels at this imprecision and laxness.  There may be no cure for the rappers, reporters, politicians and advertisers, but it would be helpful if we didn't pick up their bad habits and just said what we mean.

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