I have words on my mind; rather, I have been thinking about words and what consequences arise from the ones we choose for our communication.
We are bombarded every day with words whose definitions we are expected to understand, in whatever context the speaker, or the writer, intended. The problem with this task is obvious — words are slippery, and meaning assigned in the mind of the speaker is not always the same as that understood by the listener, or reader. Therein lie such miseries as conflict, pain, the feeling of betrayal, the loneliness of the misunderstood; everything from personal anguish to war’s devastation.
Yet, over the thousands of years humans have been communicating, words remain the best option for the transfer of ideas from one person to the next. Without the depth and breadth of the spoken and written word, even the most basic messages would be lost; picture a man shaking his fist at the unfairness of the world, and then consider the myriad ways in which that gesture might be translated in the mind of the beholder. Wars have been fought over less.
And then, one comes to the person who uses words to draw a specific reaction from large group of people. One obvious example is Adolf Hitler — he had the gift, (if I may be excused for calling his words a gift,) of public speaking powerful enough to lead most of a country of ordinary people down a road to unspeakable horror. Think of Joseph Stalin, Karl Marx, Mao Tse Tung; then think of Mahatma Gandhi, Jesus of Nazareth, Gautama Buddha — all of these people used essentially similar language to convey radically different ideas.
Now, think of the words we use every day: those words are as open to interpretation and misinterpretation as any of the speakers and writers mentioned above. We communicate freely, but often with little consideration for the different ways our words can be understood. The way to overcome this is to consider carefully before we speak, and use vocabulary to its fullest extent to communicate precisely the ideas we intend. This won’t end the misunderstandings of the world, but it will be a step in the right direction. And this concept of precision must apply specifically to those of us who write for public consumption. The more carefully we choose our words, the more likely that our meanings will be understood.