A Word About Words

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Words make us feel things. The right word in the right circumstances can, metaphorically, put its arms around us and comfort us. The wrong word can leave us feeling uncomfortable, uncertain and wary of the speaker.

The first words a caller to the Samaritans hears are, "Samaritans, can I help you?" How different the experience would be if the call began with the words, "Samaritans, can I assist you?"

The two words, help and assist, are semantically interchangeable but the feelings and associations they evoke couldn't be more different. The first leaves you in no doubt you've entered a safe haven; while the second makes you wonder if you've got through to a call centre, by mistake.

Recently, a client sent us a draft of a speech, which opened with the line, “this isn’t how I envisaged my first conference as your leader.” She's the chief executive of a large organisation, and the speech, her first to conference as leader, was to be given online, having become yet another victim of Covid restrictions.

It was a great opportunity for her to create a positive emotional connection with her audience. A chance to give them a strong sense of who she is and what she stands for. In the words of the evergreen speechwriters’ adage, a few weeks after they’ve heard you speak, an audience might not remember what you said but they’ll always remember how you made them feel.

As I skimmed the opening line of her draft, the word envisage stuck out like a sore thumb. It jarred with me and didn't feel quite right. So I replaced it with a similar, but much warmer word, imagine. But what does it mean to say that one word is warmer than another? The litmus test of the warmth, or coolness, of a particular word in a specific context, is our gut reaction to it. Let your body's response guide you.

A more objective way of assessing a word's temperature is to ask yourself if a child, or young person, would understand or use it. As a rule, the earlier in life we encounter a word, the more emotional and physical associations we have with it. Consider envisage and imagine, for instance. Imagine – and its derivates, imagination and imaginary – would be familiar to young people. By comparison, envisage is a very grownup kind of word. Etymologically, imagine entered the English language earlier (mid-14th century) than envisage, which didn't make an appearance until the late 18th century.

I'm not dismissing the use of cooler words – it's more a question of making sure you've chosen the right word for the task you have in mind. When the call centre service adviser offers to assist you, the feelings and associations the word assist conjures up are appropriate to the transactional relationship you're about to engage in with them; but it would sound decidedly odd if you heard a mother using it to comfort her young child.

Am I arguing that the use of the word envisage could have scuppered our client’s speech? Of course not. But I do want to emphasise the point that the feel of individual words in a speech, or piece of prose, matters. It's cumulative and creates the emotional backdrop to the audience’s experience of the occasion. Most importantly, it can have a profound impact on how you end up making your audience feel.

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