Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Phrasing! The problems with names.

Be careful what you name things. An off-the-cuff name concocted in a meeting tends to stick. Years later you regret it. For example, we used to call the groups of free-ranging crew on the production floor, the folks who could work any station, "Floaters". Thankfully that stopped. We now call them "Mercs," short for "Mercenaries," which, while tinged with what's probably an unhealthy amount of war and vengeance, at least has some glamour in it. UPS, at their Louisville hub, calls them "Hot Spares" which I wish we thought of first.

This naming problem shows up everywhere. Take Global Warming. What a terrible name. The fact that Global Warming often causes extra-cold weather has, in my opinion, done more to hurt its credibility than just about anything else. Most news agencies have started calling it Climate Change but that's blanded it into a position no better. It's a phrase that lacks any urgency or sense of direction.

You may be be like, "Pshaw, Mo, you are a writer marketer talking about word choice. Of course you care about names. But most people see through words. They know what things really mean." Maybe. But I think the clarity and power the right phrase evokes can have a huge effect. I'll keep posting to this theme under the tag "Phrasing" and share more evidence. Meanwhile I'll leave you with a couple historical examples to think about.

It used to be called Sex (Discrimination), and then:
“I look at these pages and all I see is sex, sex, sex. The judges are men, and when they read that they’re not going to be thinking about what you want them to think about.” — Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s secretary, 1970s, as she was typing Gingsburg’s briefs to present to the U.S. supreme court when Ginsburg was a practicing lawyer. Ginsburg changed the word to “gender discrimination.” She was hailed for winning more cases on this cause than any lawyer in history. New Yorker
In used to be called Birth Control, and then:
In 1962, the director of the Planned Parenthood clinic in Harlem (over whose opening, three decades earlier, W. E. B. DuBois had presided) met with Malcolm X. Malcolm X said that he thought it would be better if the organization called its service “family planning instead of birth control.” (The meeting notes, sent to Guttmacher, read, “His reason for this was that people, particularly Negroes, would be more willing to plan than to be controlled.”)  New Yorker

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