Saturday, 14 November 2009

The Meaning of Words

How much time do you put into making sure you are clear about what you mean? How much time and emotional energy do you think is wasted because the meaning of the words you use are given a different interpretation by the reader or listener?

Lanaguage is a great asset. It is the means by which ideas get from my head into yours. You'd think that when people speak the language that would be a trouble free thing. We know different. Words are used to deceive as well as inform and clarify and they are able to decieve because of the way in which can hold different meanings.

I think that being gullible is related to taking words at face value, or assuming what they mean without seeking further clarification, or evidence. The situation is made worse because often we are too polite to probe for what the other person really means. When people are defensive and un-helpful about making things clear for you then this is really fishy and sure sign that something isn't right.

In education and higher education in particular students are often confronted with the ambiguous meaning of words. One of the biggest weaknesses (how would this have read if I'd said failings?) in student writing is that often they do not explore the definitions and and alternative meanings of the key terms they are discussing. This is down to the social habit we all have of assuming that words have fixed meaning and that your take on what a word means is the same as mine.

The people who try and make sense of the words we use (Grammarians and Semanticists) show us that a word is not static and absolute it is dynamic in its application and its meaning. Popular examples of this are the words 'bad' and 'gay' as this old Ovaltine advert shows.


The downside of checking the meaning of everyword of course is that it takes time too. We all hate being called Pedantic. The thing is that it's really not the word Pedant that we dislike but its meaning! As this definition explains, "A Pedant is a person who is overly concerned with formalism and precision, or who makes a show of his learning"

One group of people who are deeply concerned with the meaning of words are people of study and practice neuro linguistic programming The chances are that you have heard of it if you read blogs like Gullibility. For those of you who are less familiar, it is an approach to communication and sense making used by therapists created by Richard Bandler and John Grinder. As well as being inspired by the work of counsellors and therapists they used ideas from Noam Chomsky the father of Grammar and Gregory Bateson the anthropologist. Their main book is:

This stuff has real world implications for organisations and business too. Think of a university. Now, do we call the people who come to learn at the university 'students' or 'customers'? Depending of the choice of label this affects the way we think about and act towards those people. The same in commercial life, do we serve audiences, segements, customers, buyers, consumers, users, clients,partners, co-creators of value, targets,suckers, punters? What is the prevailing word in your business and what does it really mean!

In our personal lives the same concern for word meaning applies. Being alert to what people mean is a crucial way in which you can stop people taking advantage of you.

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