Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - June 4, 2010

"Common" words

Choosing appropriate words is at the core of the writing craft. But words are slippery things with meanings shifting over time and distance. The word propaganda was once widely used by the Catholic church and meant "to spread the good news." But after the Nazis adopted it to describe the purposeful communication of anything that promoted their cause, the word came to mean any message whose content was not necessarily related to the truth.

In Europe, rape seed oil has been widely used for centuries as a lubricant, as a fuel in lamps and for cooking. But when the Canadians developed a superior low-acid version for cooking, they worried that marketing it in the United States under its common name might be a problem because of associations the word rape brings along. So they decided that their CANadian Oil Low Acid product might go down better as canola.

In Britain, a village sign might state that the town council proudly announces a new scheme. In our country, we are always afraid that people in government are scheming and we don't consider it anything to be proud of. So here, an upgrade of the road layout might be best communicated without using that particular word.

But certainly when a bunch of people living at the same time in the same place who use the same language get together, these sorts of misunderstandings will be minimal, right?

Don't count on it.

Last month, I, along with about 60 others, had the privilege of being part of our school district's efforts to chart a course for the future. District employees, community leaders, parents and ordinary citizens gathered in a semi-formal process to do a little brainstorming. While the fiscal problems virtually all districts are experiencing was certainly the "elephant in the room," our goal was to formulate a general plan.

We have been blessed to live in a district in which strong citizen support is coupled with enthusiastic and capable administrators and staff, all of whom share the goal of wanting an excellent system. But an exercise during one planning session really put a spotlight on how language that we assume would bind us together can also divide us.

Four signs were posted, each with one of the following phrases: strongly agree, agree, disagree and strongly disagree. Then a phrase or statement was read and each person moved toward the sign that most closely described how he or she felt about it. Examples included: "Data informs decisions," "Community input is valued and actively sought," "We will never compromise excellence," and "We will never be satisfied with our successes, but will continue to strive for improvement." When there were differences of opinion, a representative of each group was to explain to the others why they had chosen as they had.

What surprised me was that when each group explained their position, we rarely disagreed on the goal, but instead on what the phrase meant.

The "Strongly Agree" group took the "Data informs decisions" to be shorthand for decisions would be based on facts and not on whims, someone's private agenda or assumptions that couldn't necessarily be justified. But those who disagreed with the phrase believed it meant that numbers would be given a higher priority than values or experience. Still others were concerned it meant that when quality of education bumped up against saving a buck, the latter would always be chosen.

Some saw the community input phrase as overriding professional expertise, while the "Strongly Agree" folks saw it as merely supporting a collaborative effort.

Others read the success statement as meaning that no time should be wasted celebrating successes, while others took it to mean that people should never rest on their laurels.

Certainly this sort of problem isn't limited to this small group. Most Americans have at least read the Constitution at some point, most likely long ago in school. While the wording might seem a bit archaic, I have a hunch most of us are pretty convinced we know what the authors meant.

But if the planning exercise is any indication, it's probably a sure bet that no two people interpret the words in the Constitution to mean quite the same thing. So we may know the words, but not really know what was meant.

Husband Art has a story from years ago when his boss was teaching a trigonometry class. At the end of one period, he told the students they would have a quiz during the next class and should "know" their trigonometry tables.

Before the next class began, a father arrived with a very tired-looking son. The dad explained that although his son had been up all night, he had been able to memorize the tables only through 5 degrees! So while the instructor meant "know how to use" the tables, the student thought he meant "memorize" the tables.

When I first began writing a column, I decided to focus on those things that people share - the things that bind us together. But perhaps when it comes to language, something we have in common is that we don't have as much in common as we may think.

2010 Index