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A Common Vocabulary?


A friend once sent me a link to a discussion on TED - the ‘good ideas’ website - where leading lexicographer Erin McKean posed the question:

How important is a common vocabulary for sharing ideas, and how do we arrive at one?

Do we need to all be “on the same page” to have productive conversations? Do we have to use the same language or talk about ideas in the same way? What are some examples of vocabulary that’s divisive, rather than helpful?

Unfortunately by the time I clicked on the link, the discussion was over and I couldn’t add my two-pennyworth. (TED discussions last for just one hour.)

But it got me thinking all the same. Although I felt ‘in tune’ with many of the contributors, there were many words in the discussion that I had to look up. I got curious about:

  • Wiki-language
  • Semantic primitives
  • Phenomenological algebra
  • Metalanguage
  • Code-switching
  • Productive friction
  • Lorenz strange attractor

When I know I don’t know the meaning of a word or a phrase, I reach for the dictionary, on- or off-line. Or I check out Wikipedia. Or do a Google search. And even when I’ve have found what seems to be a reasonable definition, I don’t feel ‘sure’ about the word until I’ve heard it used a few more times. Erin McKean founded Wordnik to help speed up this process, by providing lots of information, including usage examples, in one place. Look up metalanguage, for example. As well as definitions, you’ll see ten examples of this word being used in books, ten tweets, related words, and even its scrabble score.

But is it a good thing to imagine that because we’ve looked up a word we know it, and that we know what someone else means when they use it? It may be possible in theory to arrive at a common vocabulary, but as several contributors to this discussion pointed out, a word can mean one thing in one context and something completely different in another. And since we imbue words with our own personal meaning, based on our psychological and emotional experiences of them, their meaning can vary from one person to the next

One contributor, Eric Westfalls says:

“When I say the word “teacup,” I’m only using one word (“same vocabulary”), but three different people will imagine three different things. I imagine a shallow, wide piece of china sitting on a saucer with wavy blue decorations circling around it. My brother imagines a modern coffee cup with a tea bag hanging inside it, and you might imagine a square-handled cup that otherwise is similar to mine (minus the decorations). One word evokes a wide range of thoughts. It gets a thousand times more complex when we bring in abstract ideas, such as “justice” or “healthy,” instead of simple physical nouns.”

Rather than attempt to create a one-size fits all vocabulary, perhaps we should be acknowledging that we can never know what any particular person means by any particular word, and be looking for ways to stay open to that fact and curious about what this person might mean by this word? Instead of trying to know the meaning of every word, maybe we should be learning to be comfortable with the idea that we don’t know.

Clean Language is ideal for helping us to stay in a state of not knowing. The simple rules and questions David Grove devised allow us to get curious without inadvertently imposing our own interpretations on others’ language. The main rule is to only use the other person’s words (i.e. do not paraphrase) along with clean questions, such as “Is there anything else about … ?” or “What kind of … is that?”

On one of our Clean Learning Webinars we asked every participant what they would like to have happen on the call, and two of them said “I’d like to learn more about Clean Language.” Yet when we asked them clean questions to clarify the word ‘more’ their responses were completely different:

  • I want to have a sense I understand enough to use it naturally, without having to think
  • I am going to a meeting and I am wondering if I can use it to clarify some things in the meeting.

And when these responses were questioned a bit more, we were able to design activities on the call that would meet their needs more closely than if we had made assumptions about what they meant by the word ‘more’.

So next time someone uses a word you’re unfamiliar with, by all means reach for the dictionary. But be aware that when you’re sure you know what someone means, you probably don’t… and that’s a good time to get really curious!

Do you have any stories that involve words meaning one thing to one person, and something different to someone else? What happened?

Photo by Pisit Heng on Unsplash

About Marian Way

Marian Way's avatar

A highly skilled facilitator and trainer, Marian, who founded Clean Learning in 2001, has developed and delivered training across the world. She is the author of Clean Approaches for Coaches, co-author, with James Lawley, of Insights in Space and co-author, with Caitlin Walker, of So you want to be… #DramaFree.

Marian is an expert Clean facilitator, an adept modeller, a programme writer and an inspirational trainer. She has a natural ability to model existing structures, find the connections between them and design new ways for people to learn. Marian was a leading innovator within the Weight Watchers organisation, which included developing the “points” strategy, a local idea that went on to become a global innovation. She is a director of both Clean Learning and Training Attention CIC, world leaders in clean applications for corporate, educational and community development. She designs our programmes and workbooks, leads workshops and teaches on all our courses. She’s trained people in Great Britain, Russia, Sweden, Germany, Australia, Japan and the USA. Marian is also a recognised Clean Assessor.

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