Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Saving lives through better terminology

I've been thinking about the power of terminology, and how it can save lives.

Using the right term is so important. For instance, "sweetbreads" taste and sell a lot better than "pancreas & thymus" or "brains" or "offal".

In a debate, the side that controls the terminology has a huge advantage. For instance, when Bush's team was fighting the "estate tax" they weren't making much progress. But by redefining it as "death tax" they were able to make sweeping changes.

Terminology is something Tiger Woods has failed to understand. By allowing his actions to be labeled "cheating" he has already lost. Nobody likes a cheater. But had he framed the issue as one "love" he could have retained the moral high ground. How can anyone be against "love"? It's what the world needs now. Love is all we need. This is the speech Tiger should have given to retain his lucrative endorsement contracts: "Hello, I'm Tiger Woods, and if I'm guilty of anything it's that I love… too… much!"

In the abortion debate, the "pro-life" side has a semantic advantage over "pro-choice". They're both positive terms, but "pro-choice" has a touch of selfishness about it. "Planned Parenthood" is onto the right idea. The pro-choicers should instead use a term that takes the high ground: e.g., "pro-family".

"Drug war" is a good turn of a phrase. If "prohibition" ever replaces "drug war" then the war will be as good as over.

Bono was onto something this weekend when he almost used the term "file-swiping" instead of "file-sharing". As long as "file-sharing" is the debated term, artists' rights are lost. "Sharing" is such a nice, friendly term. It's hard to feel negative about "sharing". "Swiping" isn't as nice, but I don't think it goes far enough in conjuring negative images. Bono should instead replace "file-sharing" with a term like "artist-raping" because it better describes what's happening: forcibly taking pleasure from the artist without their consent, but without actually "taking" anything because the orifices are still there for the next artist-raper to do the deed. I can guarantee you that if "artist-raping" were to replace "file-sharing" the practice would end.

With a term like "global warming" the environmentalists have already lost: it's a warm term; it's fuzzy. "Climate change" would scare people into action if they knew what "climate" meant, but most people think it means "weather", and the weather changes daily anyway, so why worry?

"Universal Health Care"? That phrase is a disaster. Joe Schmoe doesn't care about health care for everybody else, he only cares about health care for himself. I don't know a better term. Anybody?

But enough trivialities. It's time to take what we've learned about words and save some lives. How many people die because "killing spree" is such a fun, fun term. Suppose your friend calls and says "hey, wanna go on a killing spree this weekend?" for at least a split second you're going to think "yeah, that sounds like fun." Let's do away with "killing spree" and replace it with something that sounds less oogly-boogly joyful, such as "murderous rampage". I don't know about you, but if my friend asked me to spend my weekend on a "murderous rampage" I'd say "no, how about if we just watch the game" with no hesitation at all.

Can we all agree? No more "killing sprees"?

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