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Choose Your Words Wisely

John Bradley Jackson

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Words change. Words that we used long ago may have new meanings today. Words can also have different meanings in different cultures. Be careful to choose yours wisely or you might not get your point across.

Words change meaning over time. I was talking with my daughter about the movie “Pirates of the Caribbean” and pirates’ “booty” when she got embarrassed because of my ignorance. To her booty meant buttocks or bottom (thanks to urban rap music). A similar thing happened when I was looking for my sandals. I asked my son if he had seen my “thongs” when he reminded me that thongs are underwear these days. These faux pas (note I did not write “fox paws”) were unintentional on my part but are examples of how language can be transient, short-lived and can cause discomfort or can even completely sabotage a business deal by inadvertently offending someone.

Technology has changed the meaning of words. Remember when a firewall delayed or stopped the spread of fire? Or when a virus was something that caused a cold? Or, when the web was something that only a spider could make? To me spam is canned meat and best served with fried eggs and rye toast; to others spam is unwanted emails about Viagra or low cost mortgages. A hub was the center of a wheel not long ago; today it has something to do with a computer network.

Culture gives words and phrases different meaning even when the language is the same. In the England they might promise to “knock you up” in the morning which means that they will call you on the phone. Another UK phrase is “totally pissed”, which means you are drunk. Of course, this would mean that you are angry in the United States. In the U. S. Barbie is a doll, while in Australia a “Barbie” it is an outdoor barbeque.

Words are formed all the time. Some are faddish or temporary and will quickly fade away while other words become permanent. Some words are created by the manipulation of suffixes and prefixes. For example, the noun plane when added with a prefix “de” creates the verb “deplane” which is something that the little guy on Fantasy Island used to repeat when he saw airplanes landing. It also means to get off the plane.

Technology is big on using and creating compound words, which is the pairing of two common words to create one new word that sounds cool or innovative. “Middleware” (a type of software) combines two common words to make a new one. Or, how about “guesstimate” which is a blended word that uses guess and estimate as root words. The technology crowd loves acronyms and initials. I bet you didn’t know that “JPEG” actually means Joint Photographic Experts Group (I sure didn’t).

Sometimes proper nouns become a part of our everyday language such as to “google” something on the web. My good friend Greg who works at Yahoo! questions why I would use such a limiting and offensive phrase. Watergate is a now a word that means corruption or deceit instead of a hotel near Washington D. C.

Words change and so do their meanings. Think carefully before you speak and write or use them in an e-mail.

John Bradley Jackson

© Copyright 2007 All rights reserved

John Bradley Jackson brings street-savvy sales and marketing experience from Silicon Valley and Wall Street. His resume also includes entrepreneur, angel investor, corporate trainer, philanthropist, and consultant. His book is called “First, Best, or Different: What Every Entrepreneur Needs to Know About Niche Marketing”.

Check out his website at: or his blog at


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