Words have power   2 comments

Saigonsays recently posted a blog about the use of jargon in our speech (http://tinyurl.com/l8mgxab) – at least he started that topic before digressing into the issue of what sustainable development is / should be (an interesting but entirely different topic).  I’d like to add to that beginning and talk about both jargon and the power of words.  Using the right words – or the wrong ones – doesn’t only matter for professional writers.  Anyone who communicates verbally or in writing needs to be aware and use them carefully.  Words can illuminate or confuse. The right words at the right time can heal, the wrong ones can hurt, even when no hurt was intended.

Words matter

Acronyms and jargon can join us or separate us.  If you understand a term without asking, you are part of the “club”; if you don’t, you are marked as an outsider.

This gets more difficult when an acronym is used to mean different things.  For instance – RAM means “random access memory” to people familiar with computers; but it can also mean “Rolling Airframe Missile”, “Reliability, Availability, and Maintainability”, or “Rad Academica de Mexico” in different contexts.  In fact, a quick google search resulted in 126 potential meanings for that acronym.

Jargon can be even trickier. As an example, at one time I was in a position requiring evaluation of computer systems that could provide displays in response to controls in an automobile simulator.  This display was to provide the equivalent of the scenery outside the car window.  The system needed to provide the capability is generally described as a real time simulation – the core component of any effort to create virtual reality.  When I met with prospective vendors, the first thing I would ask them was: “What is your definition of real time?”  If they couldn’t give me an answer or if they described it as “providing a response quickly enough that a human user wouldn’t notice”, I strongly suspected they could not provide an acceptable solution.  “Quick enough for the human not to notice” is fine if you are creating a computer application for text, or even graphics, entry by a person.  It is not sufficient for virtual reality systems, which need to provide a seamless, high resolution display all of the time.  The definition I needed from them, my “real time”, was that all operations would complete within a specific, fixed period of time.  Anything less tends to create distracting “glitches” in the video.

You might notice that, even though I tried, I was not able to completely eliminate jargon from my previous paragraph.  I attempted to compensate by explaining terms but I suspect I was not entirely successful.  Terminology like “glitch” is too deeply embedded in my brain – it has become natural for me to use – causing me to struggle to find better alternatives.

The problem with acronyms is easy to resolve in writing – just define your use of the acronym the first time you use it.  In the case of jargon, my only advice is to know your audience.  If the terminology will be clear to most of them, go ahead and use it.  If you have a general audience, such as a popular magazine, you must spend time explaining your terms.

You might wonder why I included the other phrases in my graphic: “I love you”, “I hate you,” “what are you doing?”  Aren’t they simply phrases to use or avoid?  I don’t believe so.  Those phrases are among the most highly charged words I can think of.

“I love you.”  Say it to someone who returns your love and you will make them happy.  Say it to someone who only likes you and you may make them uncomfortable.  Say it (as an adult) to a child you are not related to and you may hear from the police.

“I hate you.”  How many times have you said this to someone you love when you were angry?  You don’t mean you hate the person in the greater scheme of things, just that you hate what they are doing right now.  Still, it can hurt the other person.  At the very least, you will owe them an apology later.

“What are you doing?” If your friend says this, it is probably a matter of genuine interest.  If your boss says it, he may be asking if you have time for a new project or accusing you of doing something wrong. The problem is, whether verbally or in writing, the phrase itself can set a reaction.  If that reaction is strongly negative, viewing the question as an accusation, the remainder of the context may be lost entirely because the recipient has simply stopped listening (or reading).

My message here is simple – Be careful about the words you use.  Words have far more power than you may realize.  Using the right words can make someone’s world feel better, bring them back from a dark place.  The wrong words, even if not intended to hurt, can cut like a knife.  If they bring back past memories, even the most innocent seeming words can have disproportionate effects.

By the way, to me the acronyms I used in the graphic are: NGO (non-governmental organization), ROI (return on investment), SAR (search and rescue), and TLA (three-letter acronym).


I am a writer of fantasy, science fiction, and poetry. If you are interested in learning more about me or my work, check out my website at http://www.leomaretan.com.

Posted September 14, 2013 by Leoma Retan in Writing

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2 responses to “Words have power

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  1. Pingback: What the heck does that even mean

    • I agree with the point of the Ester Marketing article referred to above. Your profile is for everyone to read. It should be clear and concise. It is not in your best interest to fill it with acronyms. Even within your particular industry those acronyms may not be as widely understood as you think.

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