Say What You Mean

Seems like I’ve been allowing myself to get lathered up lately by people using words that don’t really mean what they’re supposed to mean. Our language is screwed up enough without us intentionally making it more so.

For example, I made a full post recently about how “Best Practices” is a terrible use of the word “best.” Even gotSign asks "what's in a name?" some feedback that said that it’s obvious that we don’t really mean “best,” but that it’s still the best way to get the point across. No, it isn’t! Say what you mean, and mean what you say.

Then, the most recent post prior to this was about how ROI (return on investment) is used in all kinds of ways that don’t really match with what that term technically means. Sure, there’s no great harm in using the term incorrectly, as long as you think the dumbing down of society is no great harm.

Another inexact (actually, just plain wrong) use of our words comes in the form of “open source.” If I had a nickle for every time in the past couple of years that I saw a presentation where the presenter talked about all these great open source tools they were using, such as Evernote, and Google Docs, and PBworks, and Prezi!! No, no, no; a thousands time no. Do they feel the need to use the term “open source” because they think that makes them cool? A free web-based tool is not necessarily (in fact, not usually) an open source tool. Please learn what the term really means.

Maybe you’re saying that it matters not what we call something; it mainly matters what that something is and what we do with it. “A rose by any other name…”? Yes, I suppose that sounds pretty good – but it probably isn’t going to work for me. We’ve been told that Abe Lincoln was a man of sizable intellect. One of my favorite Lincolnisms provides good evidence of that intellect, I think. One of his stories is something that I have brought up in conversation dozens of times over the years. The tale (tail?) goes something like ‘How many legs does a dog have if you call his tail a leg?’ Many people jump to the answer of five. Lincoln’s comeback would be that there are only four legs, for calling a tail a leg does not make it a leg.

Calling a calf's tail a leg, does not make it a leg.

Just because you say your practices are best, doesn’t make them the best. Just because you say that you invested in your education doesn’t make it an actual investment. Just because you say I’m an idiot, doesn’t make … oh, never mind on that one.

And now about the Lincoln story. Saying that it was about a dog doesn’t make it about a dog.

This very cool article seems to set the record straight about Lincoln’s quote. And from that blog post you can find the original book from the 1800’s that includes this story on pages 241-242.

Sign photo (at top) By jack dorsey (CC-BY)

Original “Calf in Autumn” photo (CC-BY) By Glen Bowman

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2 Responses

  1. Hi, Barry,
    I think what you meant to say was:
    . . . people using words that don’t really mean what they think they mean.
    Sorry, couldn’t help myself.
    Best to you,
    Robin Davis

  2. Thanks Robin, you’re probably correct when it comes to the comment about misusing the term “open source.” However, that’s not exactly what I was trying to say about best practices and ROI.

    I think you’re right that I wasn’t as clear as I should have been – didn’t quite say what I meant to say (except in my own head).

    The lack of clarity is probably related to the use of the word “they’re” in the following: “people using words that don’t really mean what they’re supposed to mean” – I am referring to the words themselves, and what they are supposed to mean. In other words: “best” really does mean something and “return on investment” is a term with a technical definition – but people use those words in ways that ….. oh, what the heck, I’m just making it worse.

    I mostly said what I wanted to say. Kinda. Thanks, BD

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