Say what you mean

`Words carry their own luggage by way of overtones.’ The English language is remarkable for its richness, and often allows for a choice of word or expression according to the flavour which the speaker intends to convey. The two versions of the same statement which follow are both saying the same thing. Or are they?

The modern advertising executive is full of creative ideas which can turn a rather staid image into something new and exciting. He knows what aspiring consumers want and he makes sure that the product really fits their expectations. He makes the best use of the latest scientific and psychological methods to ensure that a client’s major investment in publicity gets the very best return. After all his fees depend on satisfied clients.
and

The trendy advertising guy touts the latest gimmick needed to turn a respectable product into a slick package. He’s on to the yuppie wavelength and knows just how to appeal to the punters’ greed. He’ll describe the current, fashionable theory of consumer behaviour, with a good sprinkling of psychological jargon, and suggest that you can safely bet a fortune that it’ll work for you. Win or lose, he still gets his cut.

I’ll leave it to you to decide between those two descriptions. But it’s worth spending a minute or two analysing the methods they use to convey totally different impressions. What is the difference between `creative ideas’ and `latest gimmick’, or between `major investment’ and `betting a fortune’? The contrast is exaggerated in order to make the point; but it reminds us of the importance of the choice of language needed to appeal to the right patterns in the Target’s mind.

The above is am extract from a book on persuasion in business which I wrote in 1990. It had a good, international, run but as, almost invariably happens, it eventually disappeared without trace. I do occasionally get query letters from South American university students, but that’s all. However the idea here is interesting because we are all prone to choosing our language in order to make our point effectively. And certainly religious language makes use of it.

We occasionally hear those in authority telling us that this or that is a ‘mortal sin’. More precision could be achieved by ‘this or that is potential matter for mortal sin’. If we take this further we come across ‘grave disorder’ – and we are really frightened. But it would be more accurate to refer to ‘serious mismatch’. ‘full knowledge’ and ‘full consent’ are conditions for mortal sin. What does this mean? No one has full knowledge about anything, and we have no way of telling whether our consent is full. When the choice is heaven or hell I think we need a little more clarity.

It’s the same at the other end of the scale. We cheerfully use the word ‘grace’. But we can mean it in so many different ways. In fact there are different forms of grace but we might be hard put to produce a short definition of any of them. How about ‘virtue’? Or even ‘love’ itself? That’s a word which has distinct different meanings, but we use it frequently because it helps the emotional force we need to get our ideas across.

I notice this subtle use of language in many contributions to this Blog. And I would be critical if I were not aware that I am given to it as well. You may like to consider some of the ways in which, perhaps unconsciously, we use manipulative language in order to persuade.

It starts young. I recall, from over fifty years ago my small son moving from “Granny I want a Ghostbuster’s gun” to “Granny, I need a Ghostbuster’s gun.” And he got it.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Moral judgment, Quentin queries and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Say what you mean

  1. tim says:

    Apes invented language in order to persuade their colleagues. I’m tempted to quote scripture, but that would be disrespectful.

  2. John Nolan says:

    Quentin, your two (brilliant) examples are not so much instances of saying the same thing in different ways; the second ‘decodes’ the euphemistic ‘corporate-speak’ of the first and reveals its true meaning.

    There are some good and hilarious guides to deciphering school reports, assuming (correctly) that the teachers hide behind euphemisms rather than tell the unvarnished truth.

    Advertisers using advertising-speak to advertise themselves – a delicious irony. Thank you!

    • tim says:

      John – I agree – except I’m not sure that either version is necessarily more truthful than the other. Euphemisms have their place – sometimes in teachers’ reports. It may be prudent not to hurt a pupil’s feelings – or avoid rousing anger in a parent.

  3. Geordie says:

    John, I know from bitter experience that many parents do not want the unvarnished truth. Very few people want the truth. When I did a religious inspection in a Catholic school, I discussed my report with the headteacher before presenting it to the governors. She asked me to be a bit stronger in one area because then she could say to the staff that certain changes had to be made because the inspector insisted on it. As soon as I began my verbal report to the governors, the parish priest jumped down my throat for daring to criticise the staff in his school. The poor headteacher was rather embarrassed and had a whispered discussion with the priest. I then continued my report without interruption.

  4. Iona says:

    A single word can carry a nuance that one scarcely notices (consciously), but that just makes one feel vaguely irritated. Take for example the “comment of the week” letter in February 3rd’s Catholic Herald. It is written by Dame Louise Casey, and she seems to be writing to reassure Catholics that in spite of what she said recently about Catholic schools’ teaching on relationships including same-sex marriage, she does actually have a high opinion of Catholic schools. In her letter she sauys “I am a fan of Catholic schools”. “A fan”. Of what sort of thing is one a fan? Something very likeable in the food line, perhaps; something or someone of celebrity status (here today, gone tomorrow – or anyway, next year). Not something of serious importance. If she had said “I admire Catholic schools” or “I respect Catholic schools”, the feeling engendered by her words would be rather different.

  5. galerimo says:

    Thank you. A very appropriate topic Quentin, since Francis has ordered a review of “Liturgiam Authenticam,” and appointed the English born Archbishop Arthur Roche, the secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, to be its president. The language we use in Church certainly needs attending to.

    My limited perspective can only see a difference in style with your two worthy paragraphs. They say the same thing to me.

    Semantics, Etymology and in the case of Scripture, Hermeneutics are the tools for responding to language like “Sin” and “Grace”, in our tradition. Language is just the raw material – these are the mining tools for it.

    All language above the level of a phone directory is manipulative. It is the reception and response to it that counts as communication and learning.

    We are not responsible for our thoughts (thank you Plato) but we are for our thinking.

    Among the many wonderful gifts of the Holy Spirit are Wisdom, Understanding and Knowledge. All to do with meaning. Her profusion of infused knowledge is indispensable for our Christian living.

    Yet She is so generous with Her Gift of Tongues which often don’t make a lot of sense.

    Is there a gift of ears? Seems like listening needs to be gifted to us more than talking!

  6. G.D. says:

    Yes, galerimo! ….. ‘Seems like listening needs to be gifted to us more than talking!’

    There is the whole problem with the topic.
    Language is only a symbolic representation of the meaning; the symbols can be turned/presented whichever way depending on the subjective intent.

    Listening to the meaning PRIOR to the symbolic representation and the (intended or unintended) manipulation, is the way to see the ‘truth’ of the expressions. Our own and other.
    But only In as far as our own subjective manipulations allow!

    ( Initially via symbolic expressions, of course; alas, we are not yet ‘telepathic’ enough to bypass them totally, and the use of reason and all other abilities are necessary).

    But, (forgive my proselytizing ….) to achieve the above ‘PRIOR’ it is vital, i believe, to cultivate a habit of listening with an ‘attitude of contemplative silence’.
    Use of reason and rational expressions, ONLY, are not sufficient to know ‘Truth’.
    Correct as they may seem/be, they too are only symbolic representations.

    The Spirit of Truth and it’s wisdom etc. can then be seen, known and embraced for what It Is, as it is. Despite all (ego?) ‘manipulations’ & expressions.

    One day maybe I’ll be free from my own ‘manipulations’, know it for myself, and my Joycean ramblings will take on a semblance of rationality!

  7. Martha says:

    The round robins sent by some people with their Christmas cards are a good example of events being presented in the best possible light. One in particular, which we received, composed by the young daughter of the family, left us gasping in amazement at the gloss she managed to put on what had been a very difficult year for them all, and wondering if she is set for a career in journalism.

  8. John Nolan says:

    galerimo

    Interesting that you choose to use the feminine pronoun (and capitalized at that) when referring to the Third Person of the Trinity. It would appear that you are taking advantage of a peculiarity of the English language, viz. that most nouns are neuter in gender, in order to make a point. It wouldn’t work in Latin (Spiritus Sanctus) or in German (der Heilige Geist) or in French (le Saint-Esprit) since these are grammatically masculine.

    Quite what point you are trying to make can only be inferred. Also, when you say ‘the language we use in church certainly needs attending to’, what precisely do you mean? That we need to be more attentive to what we hear? Or that the whole question of what constitutes liturgical language needs more attention than it has hitherto been given? (And it’s been a cause of controversy for more than half a century now.)

    I’ll stick with Latin, thank you. It has served the Western Church well for over a millennium and a half and is relatively tamper-proof (notwithstanding Urban VIII’s re-writing of the Office Hymns). And we are spared such eccentricities as hearing the Holy Ghost referred to as ‘She’.

  9. John Candido says:

    The first paragraph that begins with, ‘The modern advertising executive…’, can easily be compared or contrasted with the second paragraph that begins with, ‘The trendy advertising guy…’

    Paragraph One:-

    ‘The modern advertising executive is full of creative ideas which can turn a rather staid image into something new and exciting. He knows what aspiring consumers want and he makes sure that the product really fits their expectations. He makes the best use of the latest scientific and psychological methods to ensure that a client’s major investment in publicity gets the very best return. After all his fees depend on satisfied clients.

    Paragraph Two:-

    The trendy advertising guy touts the latest gimmick needed to turn a respectable product into a slick package. He’s on to the yuppie wavelength and knows just how to appeal to the punters’ greed. He’ll describe the current, fashionable theory of consumer behaviour, with a good sprinkling of psychological jargon, and suggest that you can safely bet a fortune that it’ll work for you. Win or lose, he still gets his cut.

    The first paragraph is written by someone who is biased for the business that has employed her, has worked for it for a relatively short period of time, or in fact, is the owner of the firm.

    The second paragraph is written by a cynic or an insider to the firm in question, who has worked there for a very long time, has seen its litany of errors, moral failings, and knows how many skeletons this firm is hiding from public view.

    • tim says:

      Perhaps. Or perhaps not.

      Either paragraph might have been written by an outsider – perhaps a journalist. The difference between the two might easily arise from differing political and economic pre-conceptions – or prejudices.

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