Le Mot Juste

Brian Hickey  Follow

"2/3 of student borrowers are having trouble paying back their loans. A disaster in the making." -Journalist via Twitter

A disaster? Really? Ask someone in northeastern Japan if they'd trade the bummer of March 2011 for the disaster of falling behind on a college loan and I bet you'd get a funny look.

Those who make a living with words–I am one–face several grisly occupational hazards. Excess caffeination, nearsightedness, lumbar distress and intellectual parochialism (not to mention daunting bar bills) are high on the list. But most insidious is the inevitable propensity among us screen-stained wretches to succumb to historical amnesia. We forget the ancient verity that lies at the heart of this gleaming new palm-sized epoch of always-on, location-aware, four-square, re-tweeted, microwave-powered, cell-altering technological tumesence: words have power.

How much? More power than Google or Apple or Groupon or Berkshire Hathaway or Goldman Sachs or every company that ever was or ever will be, combined, will ever have. Words do things companies can't: topple governments, create nations, preserve civilizations.

I'm unfairly picking on the author of the tweet above to make a point. But it's a point that cuts to the sinew. As George Orwell so eloquently illustrated in his landmark 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language (read it if you haven't), how we speak winds up influencing how we think – not vice versa.

In an age that has inadvertently restored the opposable thumb (both of them) to its rightful place in the human saga, those of us who toil in communications are well advised to recall the oft-cited working mantra of one of my literary heroes, Gustave Flaubert: "Le mot juste," or "the right word."

Words have power, and we professional communicators, in the course of our daily work, have a responsibility to choose the right ones at the right time. CJP

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