What’s in a word?

As Humpty Dumpty scornfully noted:

When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less1.

Which is fine for Humpty but less useful for the rest of us.

I’m sure many people will have seen Julian Assange’s tweet from last Friday:

And I’m sure we all said “Tish, pish and pshaw!” or something similar. My first thought was “I do not think this word means what you think it means.”2 My second thought was “Ah. This is obviously some strange usage of the word ‘detained’ that I was not previously aware of.”3 Detained? By whom?

Well… he’s not as wrong as we’d like to make out. We tend to see the word ‘detain’ in the manner of detention, detainees, being held against one’s will, under arrest, incarcerated. But it can also be used in the sense of being delayed. “I’m sorry I’m late, I was detained by a double-glazing salesperson.”

Unfortunately for Assange, the Ecuadorian Embassy has the Internet and he’s had visitors, so he’s not been delayed in going about his business. Rather like Humpty, “detained” means what he chooses it to mean – even if no-one else agrees.

I got the power

In another corner of Britain, someone decided that the PM has called a snap election and the term has stuck, it being a generally recognised term in politics if nowhere else.

‘Snap’ is usually associated with something short and sharp; for example, a cold snap being a sudden drop in temperature or a snap decision being a quick and decisive change of plan. For those keeping track, the election was called on 18 April, Parliament voted to dissolve on 19 April and voting takes place on 8 June. Nothing ‘snap’ about this election!

Given that the previous election was only two years ago, and that the Fixed Term Parliaments Act meant that the next one wouldn’t be until May 2020, a better choice of word would be ‘early’. But even then, honestly, it’s just an election. It’s a bit like when people put the word ‘cyber’ in front of another word, to try and give the issue some cachet. Cyber security is just security, after all. Stop trying to sex it up.

And this is important because…?

As professional communicators, we need a common frame of reference with out target audience – what we write should mean the same to whoever reads or hears it. Okay, I know we’re talking about politicians here, but for the most part clear, concise and precise communications help solve problems by creating a base upon which further efforts can be built. Just like needing to know if your building measurements are in inches or centimetres.

  1. Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, Chapter 6 []
  2. Which only makes sense if you’ve seen The Princess Bride []
  3. Which only makes sense if you’ve listened to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy []

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