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Why words matter

Filed in: media, politics, Mon, Nov 27 2006 23:25 PT

Two stories I found today explain why it’s important to be precise in matters of communication. It would follow that both of them are political in nature, as politics is the domain of compromise language.

The first is about a proposed agreement on Quebec’s status in Canada. The Bloc Québécois, a separatist party, had planned to make a motion in the Canadian House of Commons to recognize the province of Quebec as a nation. The word “nation” itself confers all manner of political implications, and would push Quebec further toward a legal separation from the rest of Canada than it had been. Later, the proposal was modified to indicate that Quebec is a nation that is “currently within Canada” — a phrase that would be ambiguous, if only the separatists were able to pick up their territory and move it somewhere into the Atlantic.

But on Friday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper proposed language to state that Quebec is “a nation within a united Canada.” Quebec separatists are happy that they are recognized as a nation by somebody, and will certainly use that recognition to their advantage where possible. What the rest of Canada gets in return is the faith that one single word — “united” — will preserve peace and order, on an issue that may never see a full resolution.
The second story is about Hugo Chavez, who is running for re-election in Venezuela. In the article, Chavez is cited as having called George W. Bush “a devil” in front of the United Nations.

But Chavez didn’t call Bush “a devil.” He called him “the devil”. A devil is nothing to write home about: there are ten of them on the court whenever Arizona State plays Duke in basketball. However, the devil, as a definite noun, has many names — Lucifer, Satan, Beelzebub, you name it — but means one thing: the representation of all that is evil. Irrespective of what you thought of his speech, Chavez did pick his words carefully, and it is important to recognize that clarity of expression, lest the reader confuse the message with something substantially more imprecise.

Words often carry many meanings, both in the clear and shrouded in nuance. During times where many parties are fighting over a certain phrase, it is best to take all of those potential meanings into account, particularly from the perspective of the advocates themselves. This kind of circumspection is why making laws and standards is hard, time-consuming, and has the tendency to drive its practicioners to drink. It is when a clear message is coming from a known source, however, that it is most necessary to protect all of the intended meanings of the speaker. If we fail that, as people who pass that information along, then we become the story.

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