Thursday, August 18

Working With A Living Language

Working with a living language is both a blessing and a curse. It gives writers like me the opportunity to invent new definitions for clarity, but it can also cause headaches when other writers use the weight of words to mask their intent.

For example, when I was still evolving my company from the freelance writer I was into the corporation it is today, most Internet search engines narrowly categorized writers into very specific disciplines. You were either a copywriter (meaning advertising) or a freelance writer (meaning journalist), a technical writer or a business writer, a direct response writer or a script writer, or ... blah, blah, blah.

Since I didn't want to limit our capabilities to any of these categories, I was one of the first, if not the first, to lobby for a new term: writing services. It made sense, because our company works within all the other sub-categories. Today, most Internet search engines include a 'writing services' category. It works well for our company and the few others like us because the definition better clarifies what we offer. It's not the only example I could cite, but I like to think that it's a good one.

Then, of course, there are shifts in our language that I do not appreciate because the goal is not to add clarity but rather to mask a meaning. One of my least favorite in Nevada (and I hope it dies a horrible death) is the concept of 'government revenue.' There is no such thing. Governments do not have revenues, they have budgets that are created by taking a percentage of other people's revenue. Yours and mine, to be precise.

Sure, you can find it in some dictionaries. Revenue: the income of a government from all sources appropriated for the payment of public expenses. No problem ... until you abuse the usage. It's easy to do. Ask the handful of government officials who began pushing a perceived need to 'increase government revenue' in Nevada a few years ago. That sounds almost admirable until you appreciate they wanted to 'increase taxes.' (As footnote, they were never going to appropriate money for the payment of public expenses. Rather, they appropriated money in order to create additional public expenses.)

Personally, I've always subscribed to an underutilized code of ethics in communication developed by the International Association of Business Communicators. While there are several points worth considering at IABC Code of Ethics, the one that best fits this post is: engage in truthful, accurate and fair communication that facilitates respect and mutual understanding.

The real buzz term in this case is 'mutual understanding.' Communication should be designed to clarify rather than confuse your audience. It's a concept that many people forget, including those people who call you on the telephone and claim it's a courtesy call. Baloney. It's a direct marketing call, pure and simple.

Oh well. The most we can hope for is that the definitions with merits outweigh the abuses at the end of the day. And today, there was one that came out of a new survey by Zogby International for the MetLife Mature Market Institute. The definition of old, it seems, is changing again.

Based on a pool of 1,000 people by telephone about what they considered to be "old," a third of the participants claimed
that 71 to 80 is considered old. Younger survey participants, those under 30, considered 61 to 70 to be over the hill. Among the respondents 65 or older, nearly 60 percent said that 71 to 90 was considered old. And even younger people, those between 18 and 24, have adjusted their idea of old. A majority--59 percent--refer to "old" as someone over 60.

Zogby International claims this shows that since the population is aging, the idea that old begins at 30 as it did in the 1960s is long gone. (Given that I'm over 30, er barely if you allow me a little fudged indulgence, I'd like to think that this new definition of old is a merit.) Grin. More to the point though, as people live longer and there are an increased number of people working or donating time to their community later in life, the definition and the attitudes about the definition will change.

And that is the best thing about working with a living language. You have to stay up to date with the language and, with luck, use it responsibly so that you create more mutual understandings than maximum confusions.

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