What’s My Name?: Why Word Choice Matters

I had a conversation earlier in the week that got me thinking again. I’m mostly writing this to get everything out of my head. During the discussion, which focused on editing the phrasing of a statement someone made, a person essentially said that, unless everyone became a lawyer and this was part of a legal contract, the choice of a single word didn’t matter.

As a writer, editor, and educator, I obviously take issue with that assertion. The question is: why?

Obviously words are important, at least I (and presumably most if not all writers and educators) think so. But, why? I think part of it is an understanding that words have various cultural connotations. But, more importantly, they shape how we view the world. I’m kind of channeling a bit of Edward Schiappa and Henri-Jean Martin here. But, even without them, it is obvious that words and word choice are the foundation of propaganda, marketing, and PR spin (really a mix of the first two).

Ancient societies understood that words have the power to shape our views. This is why ancient magic focused on naming and words to change the world (whether to heal, curse, or whatnot). This is also why ancient records talk about “great conquests” that often appear to really mean someone walked into a village and knocked down a barn (clearly not as impressive for a heroic king).

Just to provide some modern examples:

Mushroom – If word choice doesn’t matter, why do pizza places list mushrooms as toppings rather than listing fungus? As a culture, we definitely have negative connotations regarding fungus (and, yes, mushroom is more specific) that we don’t about mushrooms.

“Active Yogurt Cultures” – Nearly every yogurt container says this. Why not say “Contains living bacteria”? The answer should be obvious, given our germ paranoid culture and the plethora of ads we see every day for anti-bacterial everything.

Job Creators – This one should be clear as well. The phrase shapes how people view the world, specifically a given socio-economic class in society. To call them “ultrawealthy” is to make them an easy target, especially when the debate turns to taxes (clearly the ultrawealthy can afford to pay more in taxes, it won’t kill them or cause them to miss meals). Job creators, though, just as clearly shouldn’t be paying more taxes, since that’s money they could invest in creating more jobs, assuming we buy the word choice switch.

Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) – A modern classic. This term was used throughout 2001-2002 interchangeably with “nuclear weapons” in the lead up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Eventually, it was used so much that people stopped talking about nuclear weapons and simply said WMD (catchier, easier to say). Why does this matter? Because the people who coined the term knew Iraq had no nuclear weapons, so they changed the terminology while keeping the spectre. They also knew that Iraq had biological and chemical weapons (because the U.S. had sold such things to Hussein 20 years previously). So, when no nuclear weapons were found, they quickly said, “But we found WMD!” by which they suddenly meant bio-chemical weapons, despite their initial associations . . . and technically they weren’t lying, even though they also technically were.