Remember, there’s a word for that

Peter Butler
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Funny things, words. Choose the right ones and you could be remembered for them forever. Choose the wrong ones and they could spell disaster.

In the locker room, a rallying pep talk from the head coach between periods can make the difference between a come-from-behind victory and a crushing defeat.

In the movies, an awkward, unconvincing reply to “I love you” can be the make or break difference between two characters riding into the sunset or parting ways indefinitely.

The same goes in politics. A significant contributing factor to Kathy Dunderdale’s resignation as premier of Newfoundland and Labrador in January was her insistence the province wasn’t in crisis mode in the midst of what was clearly a crisis.

A testament to the power of using the wrong words, it ended up being one of the final statements she made as premier before announcing she would be stepping down.

But while some words can be tremendously meaningful, others can be utterly meaningless.

Enter the grocery store and find “gourmet” pizzas sitting in the freezer section. Canned soups and microwaveable eggrolls labelled “premium” are a few aisles down.

Head to Starbucks and overhear how “literally” mean Stacey had been to the girl waiting in line in front of you. Later, listen as she tells her friend how “ironic” it was that Stacey would be the first person to pop up in her Facebook news feed.

“Amazing,” she says.

Turn on the TV and watch the latest commercial from Oral-B advertising its newest “revolutionary” innovation in toothbrush technology. Flick over to the news and hear a politician promising a different “revolution” under their leadership.

So many words are worn out, diluted or distorted to the point where they don’t mean anything anymore. Meaningless words and expressions abound in today’s world. We experience them on an everyday basis.

But just because words are misused, misunderstood or vague doesn’t mean they’re any less evocative.

Every pointless or misused word retains a certain, fundamental intention — “amazing” implies greatness, “revolution” implies change, etc. They’re the reason why the packs of frozen stir-fry vegetables we buy at Costco are labelled “quality” in the first place.

Of course, there’s an argument to be made that if a mutually understood meaning, no matter how unconventional, is conveyed between a speaker and a listener when they misuse a word like “ignorant” (forget the irony), is there a really a problem? Or is the language just evolving?

And who can really decide what qualifies as a word’s definition, especially when languages are, by their very nature, organic? Aren’t they supposed to evolve as times and circumstances change?

Still, the problem with loosely defined language is that it reduces the specificity of the words we use.  It’s the reason we’re skeptical of the origin of “natural” products and wary of how “instant” those instant noodles actually are.

Diluting the meanings of words to positive-negative or general associations, as many marketing campaigns and popular expressions have, does nothing but pollute the English language with uncertainty and vagueness.

The beauty of complex language is that it allows us to pinpoint exactly what we mean to say.

But allowing words to become nebulous, unclear and indistinct — and perpetuating them in these incorrect contexts — can sow the seeds of confusion and miscommunication. And nobody benefits from misunderstanding.

Patrick Butler, who’s from Conception Bay South, is studying journalism at Carleton University. He can be reached by email at patrickbutler5@yahoo.ca.

Organizations: Starbucks, Costco, Carleton University

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador

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