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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 16-Jun-13


Sunday 16-June-13

What's in a name? It depends how you make it

Words are wonderful little packets of meaning that differentiate the human race from other animals. We encapsulate all kinds of subtlety within just a few letters, then project and share these with one another. I came across a new one recently while reading Dan Brown's new book, Inferno. Without giving the plot away, there's reference to 'Transhumanism'. I'd heard of 'Posthumanism' and wondered about the difference.

Never mind the dictionary meanings or reality; just think about what the words suggest. Posthumanism implies what happens after humans, when we are all dead and gone. It perhaps suggests a robotic future or other such scary scientific scenario. Transhumanism is a softer word. It suggests transformation, change and an altogether more gradual process that, even if a bit worrying, is easier to accept. 

Another example of a subtle tweak is when 'Global warming' became 'Climate change'. It's probably more accurate and comprehensive to talk about climate change as recent examples of record-breaking tsunamis, tornadoes and so on have indicated. It is also a neatly more friendly term that is easier to accept, while simultaneously being more vague. Global warming is very clear: it's going to get hotter. It's also rather scary, especially for those living closer to the equator where it's already hot enough. Climate change is easier to accept first because it it is non-specific (and so avoids simple oppositional argument) and also because it is less threatening. If I don't want to think about bad things in the future, I can frame it as a bit more rain or sun.

Businesses know this too and the jargon there constantly adapts to become more acceptable, even when people know what it really means. 'Downsizing' (meaning people are going to get sacked) is now called 'Rightsizing'. Weeding out the dead wood is called 'performance management'. And so on.

The bottom line: If you're going to give something a new name, remember that first impressions are important and consider how people who do not know what the word really means will interpret it.

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