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We Don’t Mean What We Say

June 8, 2014

Lately I’ve been hearing or seeing words or phrases that seem to have taken on a new meaning.  They are short words or phrases that no longer have their original meaning and are used in a specific context.  Most people do know the real meaning, but don’t intend it when they use the words in this manner.  Of course, phrases always invoke mental images.  In order to communicate accurately, all of us must agree on the associated mental image.  In these cases, the mental images are new as well.

I’m not being critical of this new meaning.  I’m not complaining that people are using these words or phrases incorrectly.  I’m well aware that language changes all the time.  I’m only pointing out some words or phrases that I’ve noticed being used in a new way.  Here are some examples:

  • Smart phone means any hand-held mobile telephone.  It doesn’t imply that the phone is a true smart phone, one that has thousands of applications that can be installed from an applications store.  A feature phone, with a fixed number of applications, can be called a smart phone as well.  In this country, the term cell phone is used interchangeably.
  • Chemicals means any food ingredient with a name that you don’t recognize.  It might also mean anything that a chemical laboratory might purchase in a jar from a supply house.  For instance, sodium chloride in food would be a chemical, but sea salt would not be, even though they are both the same substance.  People who understand science realize that everything in food is a chemical, but that’s not what people mean when they use the word now.
  • Natural means any food ingredient that seems to be traditional.  People seem to believe that anything natural is good for you, but anything unnatural is bad for you.  Unfortunately, the world is not that simple.  Poison mushrooms are completely natural, for example, but they are definitely not good for you.  People believe that butter is more natural than margarine, even though butter is full of saturated fat.  Food manufacturers confuse the issue even further by calling almost everything natural.
  • Community means any identifyable group of people, regardless of whether they actually associate with each other.  It seems to be used in place of the term ethnic group or religious group, always a minority, by saying that a person is a member of a specific community.  Perhaps it’s less offensive by putting it that way, although it still conveys the same message.  What community would you specify for a member of the majority?
  • Optics means how something appears to others.  It has nothing to do with prisms, lenses, or rays of light.  I’ve heard it used to describe the public perception of a person’s activities.  Something could be bad on the surface, but good or necessary on the inside, for example.  Part of public relations is making sure that all activities have positive optics.
  • Graphic means shocking or offensive.  My understanding of the word is that it simply referred to a picture of any sort.  However, I’ve heard an interview on the radio described as graphic, even though there were no pictures.  I’ve also seen portions of a TV program described as graphic, even though television consists entirely of pictures.  Clearly this word has a new meaning.


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