Words Matter

I care about language. But, when it comes to language, I am very much a descriptivist rather than a prescriptivist. Basically that means that I don’t really care about how people should use language, I care about how people  do use language. If you want to use “literally” figuratively, go for it. I’m cool with double negatives and I enjoy split infinitives. I’m even fine with people using the word “dank” to talk about memes that aren’t damp, musty or cold. However, there are some areas where my free for all attitude doesn’t work.

In addition to being a descriptivist, I am a pragmatist who believes in linguistic functionalism. So, it is important to me that language works. That it communicates the things that it is trying to communicate. When it comes to communication with family and close friends, literally (and I’m using “literally” literally) anything goes. But, the wider the message is supposed to spread, the more careful and particular the speaker needs to be.

It’s open for debate where the lines fall, but I think most people will intuitively get that the language used during recess can be a lot more relaxed than the language used during class. If a person is writing in their journal, it can be completely casual, but if that same person is writing about research that they plan to publish, it ought to be pretty formal. Two areas where people consistently use language poorly, where they fail to successfully get across their meaning, are in the press and in political discussions.

As I’ve written about before, I’m not a big fan of the press. Not because I think the press is the enemy, but because I think the press, as a whole, is incredibly bad at their job. Part of their badness comes from the way they use language. Every single day, they announce shocking bombshells and report on catastrophic events. Every storm is a major weather event. It’s hyperbole run amok. By constantly trying to make every story more exciting than the last, it causes them to all run together. It makes it impossible to tell what is actually a big deal and means that the press is failing to communicate effectively.

In political discussions, hyperbole is certainly an issue, but I don’t think it’s the most pressing issue. I think the bigger issue is a kind of carelessness with the words we use. For example, I’ve recently seen the word genocide used to describe the European colonization of the Americas, the Holocaust, and the problem of black incarceration. The problem is that those are three very different things. They are all bad things, but they are bad in different ways and for different reasons. Instead of using “genocide” to mean “genocide,” two of the three seemed to be using the word “genocide” to mean “a very bad thing.”

Using the word genocide this way can only have a few effects. It can make the listeners doubtful as to whether the speaker understands the words they are speaking. It can make the listeners believe that three very different things are in fact the same. Or it can make the listeners think they are being lied to. All three are failures of communication.

It is often hard to find the right words to describe things. And it is often easy to use a kind of shorthand when communicating. That’s especially true with the internet being what it is and so much communication happening in group. But if we want to communicate effectively, we need to be careful in what we say. We need to call things what they actually are. Anything else is confusing and makes communication harder for everyone.


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