The other day, I was doing a crossword puzzle and came across a four-letter word with the hint: “place”. I twisted and turned different ways to say “place”. I imagined using “puts”, or some four-letter word similar to “locale”. Either my answers did not fit the other words in the interconnecting spaces, or the meaning was wrong. As a result, my solutions did not work, and when I finished the puzzle, this area remained blank. I couldn’t finish! I couldn’t win! Finally, I gave up and looked at the answer key. Imagine my dismay to find the answer to be the word “lieu”. That wasn’t the impression that the hint gave. I thought that it was a good example of slippery words, and it made me ponder slippery words and climate discussions.
My first reaction was that it wasn’t fair!
Afterwards, I saw that the puzzle designer achieved their goal to confuse and misdirect the player, me. Actually, the hint suggested a synonym for the phrase, “in place of“. As a result, the puzzle designer “won”. The clue was too vague for me to solve. The game designer gave a good example of how slippery words can steer players in many directions.
A Good Example of Slippery Words and Climate - Like Stepping Stones
We use words to convey ideas and emotions. Even when we don’t mean to confuse, the listener may misunderstand. Similar to stepping stones in a small creek, words are slippery. The stepping stones are not flat. They may sit at an angle and wobble when we step on them. We may fall in our effort to reach the other side. In the same way, slippery words can cause us to stumble and fall. So, to span the gap separating us, we use words and body movements. Even then, our ideas can fall short, leading to misunderstandings and confusion.
The crossword puzzle showed how my perception of the clue differed from the designer’s. The result was a real test of my word power. The puzzle was a game I wanted to win, and the puzzle builder was doing their best to stop me.
In Winnie the Pooh, Christopher Robin called his teddy bear “Pooh” as a term of endearment. But, we might also say “pooh” show contempt for ideas we don’t like. We must understand who is saying those slippery words, and the context of both the speaker and the listener. This is a good example of how what one means as a compliment the other may hear as criticism. It all depends on context.
A Good Example - It's All About Context
The speaker’s background gives a clue to help us figure out their intention. For example, a scientist may worry about attention to detail. So, if an idea is not exact to many decimal places, they may not accept it. Meanwhile, a cook baking a cake may be more relaxed and comfortable with answers like “about one tsp”, or “to taste”. Once again, it is all about context.
A Good Example of Slippery Words and Climate - We Don't Understand Each Other
When we talk about climate, we must be careful how we use words. We need to know the slipperiest words. So, when we use slippery words in speaking about climate change, we can be clear so our audience understands us.
Sometimes the confusion is benign, as the listener simply misunderstands the context and hears something we didn’t mean. However, other times, people may mislead intentionally to muddy the waters and disrupt good work on climate change.
When we do not understand each other, we get angry and frustrated. This leads to pointless argument and inaction. Nothing gets done! So, we all suffer the physical and financial impacts of extreme weather.
In climate change, doing nothing is not a good option. As citizens of earth, we will all suffer the consequences of climate change together. The weaker among us, like the elderly or the poor, will suffer first. But, over time, we all will suffer.
We must understand the how climate change can hurt us. Then, we can protect ourselves. Climate change causes more frequent and more severe extreme weather. If we can predict the characteristics of future extreme weather, we can build safer homes, roads, and other vital systems.
Slippery Words Get in the Way of Working Together
Scientists and engineers need to work together to protect us from climate change. They must choose their words to ward off confusion. When homes and roads fail, people get hurt, or die. When we can ride out extreme weather, we reduce suffering. Working together to create new approaches and ideas is key. That discussion demands care in how we use slippery words.
Engineers and scientists are not the same. Scientists observe and experiment to figure out how things work. Engineers solve problems to design and build things that improve our lives. They are different, but for the sake of resilience they must work together. Sometimes, they may not see eye-to-eye, because of the context of their work. Often, they use those slippery words differently and fail to communicate. This is a good example of slippery words and climate.
Call To Action
We must all work together to build a better understanding the effect climate change on our lives. Let’s all do our part to make the climate discussion clear and let’s cooperate to find real solutions.
We have created a short quiz to see where you fall in the range of slippery word use. Also, we have a short course that covers language use in climate work in more detail. Soon, we will build a detailed version of this quiz to our free on-line course on words.
Let’s work together to reduce and adapt to the future impacts of more severe weather.
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About the Author
Vice President & CFO
Joan is a specialist in governance, education and risk management with over forty years of professional practice. She is committed to helping clients achieve their organizational objectives and goals through holistic risk management.