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Choice words

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Writers obsess about word choice.

No, that isn’t precisely true: Writers pay attention to word choice.

No again. That’s a generalization. “Writers” is too big a group to generalize from. It’s wordsmiths I’m writing about, and not all wordsmiths – just the best ones.

Word maestros choose words the way a cuisinier chooses spices.

Does this mean that if you aren’t a professional writer then it’s okay to rely on “thing” as a general-purpose noun, to be hauled out in place of the word that means what you’re trying to talk about?

In a word, no.

Nor is precision the only issue at stake when you decide how much you want to care if you’ve chosen the optimal term. How you say what you say affects you, just as much as it conveys meaning to those you’re speaking to.

There was, for example, the colleague who, in a conversation about office politics, referred to a mutual acquaintance as his “enemy.”

Enemy. Out of every word available to him in his lexicographic warehouse … opponent, adversary, rival, antagonist … he chose the most extreme item in his inventory.

So far as intentions are concerned, I’m confident my associate was merely too lazy to select a less extreme alternative. He wasn’t a bad person.

But we all know what the road to hell is paved with. And calling someone an enemy legitimizes forms of political weaponry more vicious and unsavory than what labeling them your “rival” would suggest are acceptable.

Calling them your enemy, that is, makes them deserve to be your victim.

In a business setting, if you hear anyone among your direct or indirect reports refer to anyone as their enemy, take the opportunity to school them in how inappropriate it is, not to mention organizationally damaging.

That’s different from hearing expressions of rivalry, something that can, pointed in a productive direction, be useful. Do too much to suppress feelings of rivalry and you’ll find that you’ve discouraged smart people from pointing out the flaws in unfortunate ideas, or from suggesting potentially superior alternatives.

Sure, I know you’re busy. And yes, I understand that attending to word choice slows you down.

But allow me to suggest a reframing that might change your attitude about such matters: Choosing the right superlative instead of mindlessly typing “g-r-e-a-t,” … or on the other end of the semantic continuum, finding a term of disparagement more potent than the ever-present “b-a-d” … can be fun.

I might almost suggest that as hobbies go, this one is outstanding.

Bob’s last word: In our national dialog (multilog?) I’ve read lots of opinion pieces that try to explain how it’s all become so toxic and what to do about it.

One I haven’t run across is lazy word choice.

Once upon a time, Grover Norquist famously introduced the Taxpayer Protection Pledge. It had an outsized impact on fiscal policy.

So in that vein, might I suggest some enterprising reader should create the Vocabulary Protection Pledge? Sample phrasing: “Whenever I’m speaking where anyone might hear, I will carefully choose only the most precise words when explaining my ideas.”

It might not stop Empty Green from blathering about Jewish Space Lasers, but as is the case with chicken soup to treat assorted maladies, it wouldn’t hurt.

And anyway, if Jews really did have space lasers, I know whose posterior would be first in line to get zapped.

Bob’s bragging rights: In case you missed the news last week, I’m proud to tell you my long-suffering CIO.com editor, Jason Snyder and I have been awarded a Silver Tabbie award from Trade Association Business Publications International, for my monthly feature, the CIO Survival Guide. Regarding the award, they say, “This blog scores highly for the consistent addressing of the readers’ challenges, backed by insightful examples and application to current events.“

Speaking of which, this week on the (ahem) award-winning CIO Survival Guide: “The CIO’s fatal flaw: Too much leadership, not enough management.” Its point: Compared to management, leadership is what has the mystique. But mystique isn’t what gets work out the door.

Comments (5)

  • Again, congratulations to you and Jason for your award!

    In my Linked In posts and comments I have basically followed your suggested dictum “On social media I will carefully choose only the most precise words when explaining my ideas and positions.”
    I also avoid ‘liking’ posts or comments whose sentiments I agree with, but whose phrasing I don’t like.

    Unfortunately, current events can change my view on the appropriateness of certain words. Until very recently, I thought ‘dialectical’ was a good word for logical thinking that considers the different sides of an issue. Then a well-known entrepreneur ‘liked’ a piece that paired ‘dialectical’ with ‘hatred’…

  • Congratulations on your well deserved award!

    I wonder if some don’t make a distinction between the public and the private. The things that you vent in private to keep your mental balance can become violence when expressed in public, regardless of intent.

    Our public words can have real power. As they say in the superhero movies, with great power comes great responsibility.

    What we do matters.

  • Love your comment about space laser targets and, always, your choice of words!

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