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Volume 22, Issue 29;   July 27, 2022: Gratuitous Use of Synonyms, Aliases, and Metaphors

Gratuitous Use of Synonyms, Aliases, and Metaphors


The COVID-19 pandemic has permanently changed how we work. We're now more virtual than before. In this new environment, synonyms, aliases, and metaphors can pave the path to trouble. To avoid expensive mistakes, our use of language must be more precise.
A scientifically accurate atomic model of the external structure of the SARS-CoV-2

A scientifically accurate atomic model of the external structure of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, cause of the COVID-19 pandemic. Each "ball" is an atom. The spikes are the tools the virus uses to penetrate cells in the host.

This virus has compelled many collaborating groups to work virtually rather than face-to-face. When we work together virtually, the language we use to exchange ideas is freer to form regional dialects. That divergence opens a path for confusion to enter our work.

Image (cc) by SA 4.0 by Alexey Solodovnikov courtesy Wikipedia.

You're in a meeting that has been tangled in this one agenda item for 25 minutes, which is about 24 minutes longer than it was worth. The group is trying to decide whether to include a not-ready-for-prime-time component in the latest prototype. Finally, the lone holdout asks, "Wait. Are you saying that the Delta version of this thing is identical to the Gamma version?"

Five people respond in an enthusiastic chorus, "Yes!"

Holdout replies, "Then why do the two versions have different names?"

One member of the chorus has an explanation: "Delta used to have the Prime enhancements, and Gamma didn't. But Prime got cancelled last Thursday, so Delta had to be reverted to the Gamma configuration. To save time, we copied the Gamma version and gave the copy the name Delta."

Holdout replies, "Ok then, I agree, we can go with it as is."

So there went 24 minutes that nobody can get back, all because of a misunderstanding about a name.

Misunderstandings of this kind can arise for many reasons. Three of the most frustrating are the gratuitous uses of synonyms, aliases, and metaphors. I call these usages gratuitous because they're elective and unnecessary.

For example, the term hardcopy is fairly well understood by everyone. When someone asks, "Can we get this document in hardcopy?" we understand that he or she is asking for a version of the document that's produced by a printer or copier. But some people, for some reason, might ask for the dead tree version. Thinking about it for a moment, we realize that the request is for hardcopy. And hearing this phrase for the first time, we might even be amused.

Using the term dead tree version is gratuitous. It's elective and unnecessary. And although it's amusing to some, its usage can create problems. The problem with gratuitous use of synonyms, aliases, and metaphors traces to the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 and regional dialects

Before the Before the COVID-19 pandemic led to widespread
adoption of virtual work arrangements, communication
between members of groups and teams was more
likely to be face-to-face than it is now
COVID-19 pandemic led to lockdowns and the rapid spread of virtual work arrangements, communication between members of groups and teams was more likely to be face-to-face than it is now. Communication was therefore more immediate. Interactions occurred in hallways, in elevators, at coffee stations, and in face-to-face meetings. If someone used a new term or used ean old term in a new way, the usage would spread rapidly. If we heard a term that was unfamiliar, we could ask a colleague privately for clarification.

But when COVID-19 forced us into a virtual format, communication became less immediate. New terms or new usages of old terms spread more slowly, because we were more separated from each other. And asking a colleague for clarification became more difficult because of that same separation.

Although the pandemic's intensity is now reduced, many work arrangements remain more virtual than they once were. One result is that in our increasingly virtual working environment, there are more ways of referring to the same thing. This happens because we take longer to arrive at consensus names for things, or consensus usages of the terms we have. Our shared vocabulary is far more diverse, and the part of our vocabulary that is shared is reduced. We're developing "regional" dialects, even within companies and teams.

Synonyms, aliases, and metaphors

A measure of this confusion is the degree of variety in the language we use. Three channels that enable this diversification are synonyms, aliases, and metaphors.

Two words are synonyms for each other if one can be used as a substitute for the other. The state of being a synonym is a matter of degree, because no two words mean precisely the same thing in every context.
An alias is a secondary name for something that has a primary name. For example, Marigold might be the project's official name. Its alias might be "Roland's project." Unless the alias somehow becomes official, some people might not know that the primary and secondary names refer to the same thing.
A metaphor is a figure of speech that references one concept, object, or action, by identifying it with another. In metaphors, that identification of one concept with another isn't literally accurate. For example, the statement, "My son's room is a war zone," identifies my son's room as a war zone, when it isn't literally a war zone. Metaphors make writing interesting, but they open new paths to confusion.

These three linguistic forms give us opportunities to insert variety into our conversations. From the perspective of interesting writing, that's a good thing. But if our goal is broad, mutual understanding of complex subjects, they introduce risk of confusion.

Last words

When we use alternative language in important conversations, we can't be sure that every participant understands both forms in exactly the same way. That can lead to groups believing they have decided something together when in fact they have not. If you notice two terms being used to denote the same thing, raise a question: "Can we use one of these two terms, and stop using the other?" If that question provokes a debate, then there is disagreement that transcends language. And that can lead to expensive mistakes, or worse. Go to top Top  Next issue: Significance Messages  Next Issue

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