There are quite a few people interested in social change who are reluctant to choose the words they use based on which words elicit what response.  To some, they only associate this kind of word choice with attempts to mislead people.  Others believe the words they usually use are the most scholar-precise ones they've found in their readings.  Some may have other reasons.

There's no doubt that the world has people who juggle words in order to obscure the truth.  However, that's simply not the only reason to carefully choose your words.  Most of us have probably been in situations with bosses, spouses, or emotionally-sensitive friends where we told the truth but in a manner that would not upset them.  Regardless of the situation, words that are "synonyms" can have different connotations.  Our politicians and media have at times worked to build a bad reputation for some words, as they did with the word "liberal" during the past era.  This can result in many people having a prejudiced view of these words.  Scientists have found our brains develop pathways for learned responses, and this includes emotional reactions to words which depend on one's experiences.  There's nothing wrong with trying to avoid using words that may trigger an irrational negative response.

There may be places where the greatest academic precision is needed.  But it's not always essential or accessible to one's audience.  There is such a thing as "Too Much Information".  The terminology you'd use in a professional journal specifically for meteorologists might not be as meaningful if you were talking to a biologist or archeologist.  It could very well be lost on a history grad student, and almost certainly on the average person watching the weather report in order to figure out what to wear to work.  Important constituents for progressive social change are the poor and the disadvantaged.  We need to talk to them, and their circumstances cause many of them to know fewer sophisticated words.  If we believe social change is truly important and necessary, we must be willing to accept that if the mountain won't come to us, we must go to the mountain with words which are meaningful and comfortable to our audience.

The only fair and reasonable way to choose the words to use is, in effect, to let the listener choose them.  It's in the nature of language that we attempt to convey meaning through use of an intermediary - words.  Our job is to get meaning from ourselves to those who are reading or listening to the words.  When we're doing this, it doesn't matter what the words mean to us.  The question is what words are associated with the intended meaning in the other person's head.  We can't be certain of that, and when we speak to a group of people it can vary from one individual to another.  We do our best to say what will get across the meaning to as many as possible.

Choosing our words can both convey truths, and also avoid wrongly suggestive associations.  Years ago, those reporting on election results started representing the status with maps and colors.  Today, on maps and in words, the Republican Party is "red" and the Democrats are "blue".  But suppose it was the other way around.  If the Democrats were "red", that could subliminally suggest to some people the Democrats were socialists or the like.  Words can have subtle implications such as that.  When we choose words we can try to take into consideration possible unintended effects a word can have in some people's minds.  If one believes the Democrats should be represented as socialists, perhaps he would believe it was misleading to call them "blue".  Otherwise, it's not misleading to choose the word based on the (mis)perception that could result.

If we're talking about jobless people, the meaning we want others to perceive isn't only that these people don't have a boss and a regular paycheck.  We want them to register that these are human beings who have needs, who deserve justice, which society has an obligation to help (and in so doing society helps itself).  If we believe these aspects are true, it's not misleading to choose our words to express that.  If it is true and our words do not bring that into our listeners' minds, we have not served those righteous causes as best we could.

Originally posted to workingwords on Fri Jan 25, 2013 at 12:52 PM PST.

Also republished by Political Language and Messaging and Logic and Rhetoric at Daily Kos.

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