“Enron’s document-management policy simply meant shredding.  France’s proposed solidarity contribution on airline tickets is a tax.  The IMF’s relational capitalism is corruption. The British solicitor-general’s evidentiary deficiency was no evidence, and George Bush’s reputational problem just means he was mistrusted.”   — Economist,  (Blog, July 7, 2010)

Word choice is most often used to solve for expressing intent.  Yet, many of our languages are dynamic.  Between 1590 and 1610 alone, 6,000 new words were added every year to the English language.

Language is both an instrument and an environment:

  • Some words do not survive
  • Others mutate into existence (eg, Google, when used as a verb)

Unlike French or Italian, English is not a fixed or static language.  The meanings of English words are “not established, approved, and firmly set by some official committee charged with preserving its dignity and integrity.”  The English language is renowned for its “capacity for foxy and relentlessly slippery flexibility.”

The English language in particular represents a mashing of words from most major languages, for example:

National Origin Term Original Meaning
Greek Criterion Means of judgement
Latin Fact An act or feat
Italian Ditto Already said
Malaysian Amok Rushing in a frenzy
Persian Caravan Traveling company
Turkish Kiosk Pavilion
Dutch Cruise To cross
Hindi Guru Weighty grave
Cantonese Ketchup Tomato juice
Arabic Sofa Seat
Japanese Shogun General
Gaelic Trousers Pattern of drawers
North America Herstory Female perspective
Mayan Hurricane Mayan god, Huracan

The English language is particularly rich because it has been provided with a heritage of diversity—a basis in many languages.  Three in particular provide the frequent opportunity to use a synonym, or a word that means something similar.  Unfortunately, a synonym does not imply pure equivocation, and group consensus building may be challenged by the similar, yet different meaning of terms borrowed from Anglo-Saxon, French, and Latin/ Greek origins as shown in the following chart.

Anglo-Saxon French Latin/ Greek
Ask Question Interrogate
Dead Deceased Defunct
End Finish Conclude
Fair Beautiful  Attractive
Fast Firm Secure
Fear Terror Trepidation
Help Aid Assist
Time Age Epoch

Dictionaries alone are insufficient because they provide a description of what something has meant and not a prescription of what it should mean.  There are eight parts of speech in the English language (not true for all languages).  The parts of speech explain what a word is, but not how it is being used. The only way to distinguish among the various meanings of words is from looking at the usage, or context.  In language the context is provided by grammar.

Single terms, without comprehensive context, can challenge people.  The word “occurrence” caused nearly $5.0BN of risk for the insurance companies of the World Trade Center Towers since the buildings were insured per “occurrence.”  Even the term “country” is a surprisingly difficult term to define.  US Homeland Security offers 251 choices for the “country where you live” but that number is not agreed to by other countries.  The Sovereign Military Order of Malta, for example, has only two buildings in Rome but has diplomatic relations with over 100 countries.  The Vatican is only 4 hectares in the middle of Italy’s capital and is but is only an observer at the United Nations.  Israel joined the world body in 1949, but 19 of the 192 United Nations members do not accept the Jewish state’s existence.  One-third of UN members recognize Kosovo, but not the UN itself.  Your organization may have similar cultural differences when defining the term “customer.”

Oddly, context alone does not ensure consensual meaning since the English language includes contronyms, or words that mean the opposite of themselves, in context.  For example, “to bolt” can mean to fix securely or to run away; or, “to clip” that can mean to fasten or to detach, etc. Context and standards help dictate common usage and enable us to arrive at a framework where all the participants share common meaning.

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Do not forget to order Change or Die if you working on a business process improvement project. It provides detailed workshop agendas and detailed tools to make your role easier and your team’s performance a lot more effective—daring you to embrace the will, wisdom, and activities that amplify a facilitative leader.

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Facilitation Expert

Terrence Metz is CEO of MG RUSH Facilitation Training and Coaching, the acknowledged leader in structured facilitation training. His FAST Weekly Facilitation blog features over 300 articles on facilitation skills and techniques aimed at helping others lead faster, more productive meetings and workshops that yield higher quality decisions. His clients include program and project managers, senior officers, and the business analyst community among numerous private and public companies and global corporations. As an undergraduate of Northwestern University (Evanston, IL) and MBA graduate from NWU’s Kellogg School of Management, his professional experience has focused on process improvement and product innovation. His aspiration is to make it easier for others to succeed.

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