The Power of Words

There’s nothing like an election to illustrate how powerful words are. Politicians, pundits, and the media use words to advance their cause or mercilessly attack opponents. Certain words or phrases are loaded but also vague because they have never been clearly defined.

Word Magic
Notice how these words can influence your beliefs:

  • Used cars are junk; pre-owned vehicles are reliable.
  • I am not fat; I am overweight.
  • I hate problems and troubles; I welcome challenges and opportunities.
  • He is not a garbage man; he is a sanitation engineer.
  • He is not out of work, he’s jobless, unemployed, or better still, between jobs.
  • I don’t care about jungles, but we should save the rain forests.
  • A factory oppresses its workers and belches smoke; a manufacturing facility is clean, safe, modern and treats its workers fairly.
  • Natural disasters are terrifying; unnatural events are not.
  • Being low income is bad. Being poor or homeless is worse. Being a bum is worst of all.
  • Ghettos are dangerous; economically disadvantaged areas are not.
  • Don’t say a child is from a broken home; they are born into a dysfunctional family.
  • Guilty people are imprisoned or incarcerated; innocent people are thrown in jail; less innocent people are held in custody.
  • Illegal aliens are unwelcome; undocumented immigrants are welcome.
  • In war, innocent civilian deaths are tragic, but collateral damage is to be expected.
  • Military spending is bad; defense spending is good.
  • A military occupation is bad; a peacekeeping force is not.
  • Resisters, soldiers, and militants are fighting a legitimate cause. Enemy combatants, terrorists and suicide bombers are not.

And finally:

  • Wealthy people are eccentric or mentally ill. Poor people are nuts or crazy. Crazy people live in a sanitarium or nuthouse. The mentally ill live in a mental facility.

A Taxing Thought
Nowhere is political terminology more loaded than in the use of the word tax. It overtaxes my mind how many different words describe this concept, including: fee, duty, charge, surcharge, tariff, toll, levy, cost, and premium. People don’t mind paying fees as much as taxes and surcharges.

Phrases containing the word tax are even more controversial. Tax cuts are for the rich; tax relief helps the little guy. A head tax is despicable, but an immigrant landing fee is reasonable. Then there’s the estate tax or inheritance tax, the tax on a deceased person’s assets. The Republican pollster Frank Luntz recommended that the party use the term death tax when referring to the estate tax, in order to swing public opinion against it. An estate conjures up images of a millionaire family who deserve to be taxed to the hilt. But a death tax? A tax on someone who has just died, and whose family is grieving?! For shame!

English 2.0 – Welcome to the Nightmare
In the terrifying future of George Orwell’s “1984”, a totalitarian society seeks to eliminate free thought by changing the meaning of words, and even reducing the number of words used. A language called “Newspeak” is developed to that end. Although the novel is satirical, there is much truth in it. Words change thought.

As information developers, we obviously need to be aware of the power of words. Although we usually do not have to deal with such controversial ideas as those previously described, our job is still to define words and use them consistently.

Software – Soft Words
Software is a particularly challenging area in which to choose the right words, because software itself does not “exist” in the regular sense of the word, but represents pure data and form. As a result, many different words can (and unfortunately are) used to describe the same thing, for example:

  • open / view
  • edit / change / update / modify / revise
  • click / select / choose / pick
  • window / screen / page / frame / dialog
  • undelete / restore
  • object / item / element / record / instance

There is no “best” word. However, whatever words you choose must be clear and consistent.

Documenting the Documentalists
Finally, even the words that we use describe our profession are varied and include:

  • technical writer
  • information developer
  • technical communicator

Which of these best describes you? Our job titles are derived from a very small set of words. They are critical, though, because they define who we are, what we do, and ultimately, where we want to go.

Choose your words carefully – they can change everything.

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