Choose your words carefully: semantic stretch and why not to be super cool

Big data is the big thing: finding meaning in the chaos, teasing out the truth, so i was particularly interested in a project that discussed an analysis of how our use of certain words has evolved over time and how this impacts on their power in communication.

Chip and Dan Heath have written a great book called ‘Made to Stick‘. It’s an exploration of why some ideas hang around whilst others fade away. It’s primarily a marketing text, but i go back to it now and then as it’s full of those simple ideas that ground us in reality. They describe a research project that analysed every newspaper article in the top fifty US papers over a twenty year period. Over that period, the percentage of articles in which something was described as ‘unique‘ increased by seventy three percent. At the same time, the use of the word ‘unusual‘ was decreasing: at the start of the period, in 1985, articles were twice as likely to use the word ‘unusual‘. By 2005, ‘unusual‘ and ‘unique‘ were used about as frequently as each other.

As Chip and Dan say, it’s not that there are more unusual and unique things in the world, it’s just that we are more likely to call something that was previously ‘unusual‘, ‘unique‘, a phenomenon they call ‘semantic stretch‘. Essentially, what our parents called ‘cool‘, we have to make ‘super cool‘, to maintain the same amount of coolness (my mother reads this blog everyday, and i will be the first to admit that she rarely calls things ‘cool‘, but the principle stands… so no need to email me mother!)

I like the term ‘semantic stretch‘. It amuses me whilst informing me at the same time! The concept is simple: that powerful words lose their power if they’re overused. We see it all the time. Everything is new, improved, urgent, transformational, every shift is of a paradigm and may make an epoch. Every invention ‘reinvents‘. Yet so much fails to live up to the hype. We end up reinforcing everything to make the same power of point that we made before. We’re swimming harder and staying still.

Things that drive engagement in learning are relevance, timeliness, accuracy, clarity, all things that suffer when the semantics are stretched too far. It’s about recognising the everyday reality of the learner: not everything has to transform, sometimes it’s ok to just change things a little. Clarity and relevance are about recognising that a one percent change maybe enough.

It’s the same with ‘useful‘. It’s better not to keep telling people that things are useful, better to let them discover the use for themselves and share their enthusiasm. Or, if they don’t actually find it useful, we need to take that feedback on board too.

Learning is changing away from being didactic, asynchronous, prescriptive, through to being more exploratory, more reflective, more continuous than abstract. It’s more of a conversation, where meaning and learning emerge.

It’s worth us exploring our own language, reflecting on whether we are grounded or to abstract, whether we are super guilty or super cool. Learning is less about telling people that it’s great, more about listening to whether they think it’s great and acting accordingly.

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About julianstodd

A learning and development professional specialising in e-learning and learning technology.
This entry was posted in Advertising, Change, Clarity, Communication, Conversation, Effectiveness, Everyday Reality, Grammar, Language, Meaning, Research, Semantics, Writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Choose your words carefully: semantic stretch and why not to be super cool

  1. Pingback: The future of books: the evolution of publishing | Julian Stodd's Learning Blog

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