Friday, January 13, 2006

The destruction of words, language and thought - 1

The language used in economic, financial, management and business writing seems to me to be getting more and more lax.

Take the following headline in an electronic newsletter from one of the most respected firms in the world: "Corporate governance in emerging economies: stronger boards boost performance".

In order to keep the discussion at a digestible lenght on this Blog, let us take for our purposes today only the use of the word "boost".

This indicates a strong sudden upward thrust, not merely gentle improvement. So, for what kind of improvement in performance should one use "boost performance" rather than "improve performance"? Clearly, when the improvement in performance becomes unusually strong.

Is any such improvement indicated in the article concerned? No.

So the word "boost" has been used in the headline simply because it seems the stronger word to use - not because the stronger word fits the facts of the case.

This tendency to use "strong" words even when a "weaker" word is more fitting, devalues the "strong" word and makes it unfit for any use at all. If every little improvement is to be described as a "boost", what words does one have left to describe genuinely above-average performance improvement? Clearly, only long and cumbersome words such as "outperformance".

Now that's a perfectly good word in itself, but it is not the sort of word that fits easily into a headline. Can you imagine a headline such as "Stronger boards outperform performance"? NO! So, what about "Stronger boards help outperformance"? Well, pretty inelegant, really.

The solution lies in trying to use the right word for the right occasion, not merely the strongest word that occurs to one.

Consider that a hammer is entirely appropriate if one wants to drive in a nail, but it is not the right instrument if the nail needs to be taken out. On the other hand, a hammer is nowhere near appropriate if one what has to put in or take out is a screw! And not every hammer is right for every nail: some hammers can be too big, others too small.

If one uses the wrong instrument, or an instrument of the wrong size, it is not only the nail or the screw that can get ruined but sometimes the wood itself can get damaged.

In the same way, the tendency to avoid thinking about the words one uses and, instead, to use the first word that comes to hand, distorts otherwise good words - and, in the end, damages language - which is the instrument with which we think. So the result is damaged thinking.

A point that we will explore further in my next Blog on the subject (whenever I have time to get around to it!)

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