The Human Condition:

The Rectification of Names – June 8, 2014

Word pile

My young friends and family members on Facebook recently shared—and chortled over—an article in the San Francisco Chronicle’s online presence, SFGate, which reveals that General Motors had a list of banned words that employees must not use in referring to safety defects—um, “problems”—and the company’s program of vehicle recalls.1

This is neither surprising nor particularly funny to anyone who has worked in corporate communications, as I have in several positions over the years. What’s a bit disconcerting is that GM had to go so far as to formulate and, presumably, publish internally a list of such words.2 But then, I never worked anyplace as large and far-flung as GM, where the corporate communicators have to deal not only with reporters, lawyers, technical report writers, and safety administrators, but also with people who are not conscious of or trained in the use of language. GM must have thousands of vehicle inspectors in the field and quality control technicians in the factory, who each write hundreds of reports that might find their way into the public domain and the courts. And in many cases those reports will be processed by language translators who must be conscious of, and deal appropriately with, the sort of industry slang people use everyday in the industry, as in “Well, I guess I pronged that part!”

Correct use of words, as a matter of image and legal concerns in public statements, is common to every corporate communications department. I’ve always had my writing scrutinized by both technical experts and the Legal department to make sure that I’m presenting a fair case in every article I write and not using defamatory, judgmental, hostile, or legally damaging or actionable language. No place I’ve ever worked went so far as to publish a list of “banned” words, because the people I associated with were all professionals and already sensitive to language issues.

I doubt that anyone would have had to tell the communications team at GM not to refer to a car or its problems as a “deathtrap” or "widow maker.” In the same vein, the people at PG&E addressing the licensing and operational issues at Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant simply knew to avoid the terms like “meltdown" or “blast radius” when discussing the plant’s potential effects on the environment. Similarly, doctors and therapists learn in their first year as interns, if not before that in med school, not to throw around terms like “crippled for life” or a “freak of nature.” The article is right: such language is hyperbolic, judgmental, and not helpful to a rational discussion of difficult issues.

Part of surviving in public relations and corporate communications is thinking through the connotations of words like “defect” and “error.” Both suggest a failure that can be attributed to someone’s personal negligence—which practically begs for a witch hunt to find that person and punish him or her. And that’s not helpful, either. Too often, matters that bring on a recall arise from issues of foresight or unforeseen circumstances. For example, a part like the ignition switches in the GM recall might have been properly designed in the first place but installed in a space with too-tight tolerances, at the wrong angle, or otherwise used in an application which the original designer had not anticipated. Whose fault is that? And how should it be punished?

Or take a real example from my own experience. On one of my BWM motorcycles, the semicircular caps at the bottom of each fork leg that hold the axle—like the bolted-on clamps on the end of a connecting rod—were just a couple of millimeters too thin to bear the weight of the bike under all loading conditions over its service life. I never experienced a problem and never heard of a catastrophic failure, but some number of these caps must have been found to have cracked when the owners brought their bikes in for service, such as during a tire change. That generates an obvious safety recall. Is the engineer who originally designed the caps at fault because he tried to make a light-weight, just-right part, rather than specifying everything twice as thick as it needed to be, so nothing could ever go wrong? I don’t think so. I’m just glad BMW Motorrad USA pays attention to these issues, isn’t afraid to issue a recall, and fixes the problem promptly, not only on bikes in the field but also in all future production. That’s why you look at the Consumers Union report on any car and buy a brand that you trust.

In such cases, rather than “defect” or “error,” it would be better—less judgmental, less prone to witch hunts and punishments—to use a word like “problem.” Anyone can understand that problems arise without blame. Problems can occur in any set of complex circumstances beyond the knowledge and foresight of a single human being or review committee. And the word suggests that a solution can be found and implemented going forward.

In ancient China they had a term for one aspect of the process of changing regimes and dynasties: “rectification of names.” It meant calling things by their proper or correct name, to establish the proper social and political relationships. Language reflects mindset, and good communications can forestall a myriad of misunderstandings and bad feelings. Wise people, those ancient Chinese.

We see something of the same impulse in the modern phenomenon of political correctness. While I’m not a fan of PC when it goes to extremes, I can understand the thinking. For example, the word “negro”—the proper term for a person of dark skin and usually of African ancestry when I was growing up—had its origins in Spanish or Portuguese and went back to the Latin niger, meaning simply “black.” That became corrupted and vilified in the “n-word,” which I now cannot write or speak in public. In my life, we have gone from “negro” through “black” as the preferred word, to African American, and each change occurred when the older word had picked up pejorative connotations, became a negative epithet, and had to be discarded. The intent is not to keep words in circulation that have gone from being purely descriptive to judgmental and hurtful.

Evolution in language is common. At one time the word “nice,” which we moderns use to mean sweet and inoffensive, actually meant foolish, stupid, senseless, or simple to the point of idiocy. It came from the Latin nescius, meaning “not knowing.” The word morphed through its parallel connotation of meaning “timid” in the late 13th century to become “fussy” or “fastidious” in the late 14th century, and from there, through “dainty” and “delicate,” to have the sense of “careful” and “precise” by Shakespeare’s time—as in “He has a nice appreciation of the political situation.” From that point, it was just short steps to “agreeable” and “delightful,” and from there to “kind” and “thoughtful.” Meanings are slippery things from one generation to the next.3

Where I balk at political correctness is its tendency to run ahead of current word usage and try to deflect the course of language as a political tool. This is the case, for example, when words suggesting any consciousness of racial or sexual differences are banned on the grounds that they promote racial or sexual discrimination. The idea is that if we can change the words people use, we can change their thinking. And that, in my view is a slippery slope toward Orwellian coercion. People may be invited to a broader, more collegial and humanistic view of their fellows by appealing consciously to the “better angels of their natures.” They cannot be tricked into tolerance by denying them knowledge of the hurtful words. People are clever and will just make up new words with new connotations to carry their meaning. If you want to root out intolerance and evil—and that’s what civilizations try to do—then you have to go to the source, to the spirit, rather than the vocabulary.

Still, words are important. By using words consciously, we can choose to inflame a situation or place it in more useful perspective. “Deathtrap” inflames the emotions. “Safety problem” focuses the mind on solutions. Careful thinkers, speakers, and writers understand the denotations—the dictionary meanings—and the connotations—the emotional weight of past associations—that all words carry. That’s the stuff of clear writing and exciting, vibrant fiction.

1. See GM Recall Investigation Reveals Banned Words from May 17, 2014.

2. And then deal with the embarrassment of that list finding its way into external media and exposing the company to ridicule.

3. Or one region to another. As a child of the New York area, I was transplanted to the suburbs of Boston. All around me, my new playmates were using the word “wicked” as a term of perhaps chagrined admiration, as in “Hey, that was a wicked pitch!” To my New York ears, the word retained only its sense of pure evil, as in the Wicked Witch of the West. Slippery things, words. But I still love them.