on getting the meaning right

I wrote recently about avoiding words with fluid or ambiguous meanings. I focused on the word “fulsome,” whose usage has changed over the decades and which has conflicting definitions across dictionaries.

Sometimes, however, a word has a very specific meaning and is still used incorrectly. If you’ve seen the movie The Princess Bride you may remember the scene in which the Wallace Shawn character is told he is being followed. He responds more than once saying, “inconceivable!” Finally one of his henchmen says, “I don’t think you know what that word means, boss.”

Even if one feels compelled to use jargon, most jargon terms have specific meanings.

jargon word mapI once had a manager nearly twenty years ago who picked up jargon like a chameleon adapts to its surroundings. We worked with a lot of engineers based in India and he picked up their the phrase, “at the earliest.” That is a highly non-grammatical construct used by engineers whose first language is not English. It means, as you might surmise, “as soon as possible.” Once in my performance review this manager used the phrase “just in time” regarding my providing feedback to an employee. That phrase has to do with the manufacturing process and getting parts to the factory right before assembly, and not any earlier, to save on inventory costs.

That’s obviously not what he meant. He meant I should provide feedback to this employee promptly, and simply stating “prompt feedback” would have made a lot more sense.

A little thought can frequently eliminate such simple errors.

photo credit: Gavin Llewellyn. Cropped. Creative Commons License 2.0.


One Comment on “on getting the meaning right”

  1. Tahoe Mom says:

    Dean and I went on a huge hike. I was dieting. I told Dean I was going to have a chocolate chip brownie anyway. He says, “you have consumed a lot of calories today.” I go crazy. “That is not being supportive!!!” He says, “but I am being supportive. You have used up a lot of calories today and probably need the bar.” What? Oh, wait – consumed as in eaten or consumed as in used up. Same word, used correctly both times, and still confusing.


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