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Uncovering the truth about words

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The importance of clarity and honesty in global English

By Graeme Gordon, Praxity CEO

The phrase “never judge a book by its cover” is so true, but like many English expressions, it can be difficult to understand the meaning at first.

Getting to grips with the vagaries of the English language can be challenging, especially in international business where “global English” is the norm.

An American comedian once asked how ridiculous is our language when “we park on our driveways and drive on our parkways!”

The confusing nature of language is epitomized by place names. Epsom Downs in the UK, for example, is located just “up” the hill from Praxity Executive Office in Epsom. Similarly, the English hamlet of Marlow Bottom, where I live, is located higher than the town of Marlow.

In English, and I’m not sure if it’s true of all languages, some words and phrases appear to make no sense at all.

Opposite meanings

And it gets worse as we get older. Words in modern parlance are often used to express diametrically opposite meanings to those I understood in my English class at school. For example, “sick” is now used not only to mean that an individual is unwell, but also that someone is at the top of their game, or to refer to situations which are really good.

And “fit” no longer just means an individual is healthy and in good shape. It can also be used infer an individual is attractive. The two may not necessarily go hand in hand.

Misleading words

However, this is not just a generational thing. English has always been evolving. Hence, when I was a teenager, the word groovy came to signify really good or cool, whereas previously it simply referred to grooves in a solid substance. Cool is another word that we Baby Boomers adapted and adopted for our own use. Or was it even the Jazz generation before us?

The point I am getting to is words and phrases can be incredibly misleading and changes in use can make it even harder to decipher meaning, especially for non-native speakers. To avoid confusion and embarrassment, it is up to all of us to be aware of the need to keep things simple and unambiguous.

Why bring this up now?

Fake news. Or at least misleading news.

I know of at least one member of my family who no longer watches the news, partly because she does not want to be depressed, but also because events are being reported in ways that could be misinterpreted.

This is not a rant against fake news. Not at all. I believe that most news channels report what they understand to be factual. But they might not have the time or the inclination to do it justice, especially when it comes to reporting on Covid-19 and its impact.

Tell it like it is

My plea, to news channels, international businesses and any one imparting information to people who may be less informed or who may not be fluent in your language, is to please speak plainly and honestly.

If you don’t actually know something, say so. Don’t go off in to realms of speculative fantasy. And don’t use words and phrases that could be easily misunderstood. There’s enough uncertainty in today’s Covid world.

Let’s promote better understanding. And let’s tell it like it is.