My Love Hate Relationship with Words

As someone that reads and writes as much as I do (though I’m sad to say the writing has fallen off as of late), it should come as no surprise that I’m a big fan of words. Until they stopped podcasting, I regularly listened to the Word Nerds and still check in with Grammar Girl from time to time. I even have a page from Mother Tongue taped to my cube (‘tis a photocopy not a page torn from the book).  But a couple of days ago, we spent nearly an hour debating word choice for a presentation my bosses were doing and it drove me a wee bit batty.

So I put it to you, dear readers, do you accomplish a goal by having a strategy, or do you realize a strategy by having a goal?  One thing that was clear was that there was a hierarchy at work. Certainly, one term was subordinate to the other but what, exactly, was the pecking order? It seemed like every time one of us put forth an iron-clad proof for one, someone else came along with a magnet and unveiled the opposite as more likely to be true. You know the scariest part of this whole ordeal? This obfuscation of which word should be used happens all too often in The IT veldt. Words become like gazelles that we IT folk hunt down like the lions of those African grasslands.

With that aforementioned penchant for words, I was flabbergasted that before too long I was the one playing the role of hunter. I thought it best to leave those poor words alone and so I rounded up the lions and told them “it doesn’t much matter which word is used, the words aren’t important but rather it’s the concepts you should be stalking.” I said they should focus on what questions they’re trying to answer in the stead of obsessing over which word to use. I don’t mean to downplay words but in a field that is constantly coining new words (e.g. gamification) or new uses for old words (RAM) sometimes labeling the concept is the least of your concerns. I’ve found that if you put two people in a meeting you’ll get three opinions on a subject. Coming up with the right word to use, when it’s really a matter of opinion, it a futile fight. This is coming from a published poet, mind you. I’ve ruminated long and hard about the right word on more than one occasion. But there inevitably came a time when I had to stop editing.

The right word is very rarely timeless. What seems indisputable one day may be dodgy the next. Even in a word-centric profession like Library Science, words do not enjoy immortality. Cataloging is very fluid practice. Think about Native Americans and how long they were called Indians. Or how about African Americans, or is it negros? or colored folks? or blacks? What about shell-shock giving way to post-traumatic stress disorder? Books on those subjects need to be classified with the proper subject heading; a task that seems nefariously simple for good reason. The trap you sense is, indeed, there. Catalogers must be careful to not only avoid using terms that are only fads, destined to be short-lived, but they must also be cognizant of social trends to know what terms folks are currently using to find material on a given subject. That’s why it takes so long to change a subject heading. Well, that and politics…

By the same token, we in the strategy team must use the prevailing term used in the IT industry when we’re talking about goals and strategies. In the end we decided to go with the concept what the business wants as the parent phrase and with how IT will meet business needs as the child phrase. The room was too evenly split to go with a majority, nor was ours the only group to find itself in this predicament. Did we make the right choice? Perhaps for now. We did find ourselves making progress after we decided to stop squabbling over words, though. So that has to count for something.


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