Words matter. Choosing the right words, at the right time increases the effectiveness of our communication. Misusing a word, or simply misunderstanding the definition can wreck your credibility. In this post I am going to talk about some words that I hear regularly, with which I have an issue, either because they are misused, or in some cases simply don’t exist.

Tenants and Tenets. One is a word used to describe dwellers of an apartment or house, the other to describe a set of principles or doctrines. I frequently hear people referring to the tenants of their position.

Tact and Tack. Tact is a keen sense of what you can say or do without arousing offense. Tack can have several meanings, including a pointed fastener used on bulletin boards. In this case, though, I am referring to the nautical term “tack”. As a nautical term it refers to the heading of a sailing vessel with respect to the wind. “Tacking”, in sailing terms, is the zigzag course used to sail against the prevailing wind.

I have heard, in conversation “Let me take another tact with this argument.” Clearly, the speaker feels that they are arguing “upwind” and want to change their course, and perhaps they will do so with tact, but what they really mean to say is that they want “to take a different tack” with their argument.

Regiment and Regimen. One is a military unit, usually associated with ground forces. The other is a more medical term referring to a routine of diet, exercise, etc.. It would not be correct to say “My doctor has me on a strict regiment, unless you were in boot camp.

Peruse and cursory. To peruse a document means to take a very thorough read. A cursory look implies that the person has skimmed the document. I often hear these used oppositely. “Before the meeting, I was able to peruse your memo.” That statement should be met with enthusiasm as it means the person has a deep knowledge of the memo and is ready to discuss.

These are but a few of the misused or misunderstood words that I encounter from time to time. What I am suggesting here is that, if you are going to use a word, make sure you know the definition and are using it correctly. Also, if you are going to go for that fifty-cent word, make sure your audience has a strong understanding of the meaning as well.

A cautionary tale

Once I was involved in a session to discuss a heated topic. It was a topic that had quite a lot of emotion attached to it. There had been a situation ongoing for some months where parties were not heard in their concerns, myself among them.  There was a facilitated session arranged for people to air their concerns. At the end, the facilitator asked each person to summarize in a single word their feelings. I chose the word ambivalent.

After the meeting, several people in authority over me took turns calling me into their offices. Each wanted to scold me for taking a casual attitude about what had happened. I tried to assure them that I hadn’t, and that I had taken it very seriously. I was confused. Finally, I asked one of them why they thought I had been cavalier in my attitude. He replied “you said you were ambivalent about it”. I said “yes, that is true. I am”

“See!” He replied.

Then it dawned on me “What do you think ambivalent means?” I asked. Through a series of gestures and semi-grunts, he conveyed that he thought it meant that I didn’t care about the proceedings. That I was, in effect, blowing it off.

I patiently tried to explain that “ambivalence” is the concept of holding two conflicting feelings or opinions simultaneously, usually both positive and negative in nature. Because I was limited to one word, I couldn’t say “I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand blah, but on the other hand bleh.” So, I chose one word that would get across (or so I thought), the idea that I had these conflicting feelings.

Assumption is the mother of all screw-ups. In this case, I assumed that the three levels of management above me that were in the session knew what the word meant. All three did NOT. It took some time to repair my reputation with them. All because I used a word with which my audience was not familiar. In retrospect, I would have been better off to just use the word “conflicted”, or perhaps “unsure”.

Am I saying we need to “dumb down” our communication to the least common denominator? Heavens no! I believe that we can raise the level of discourse around us by raising our own ante, and going all-in on our communication. What I am saying, though, is that you have to pick and choose the right spots to raise that ante.

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One Response to Words…

  1. Debbie Costello says:

    Very well written, Bob, and right to the point. I look forward to reading more.


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