Dan Erwin: rhetoric

Words Are Magic

"Words were originally magic and to this day words have retained much of their ancient magical power." --Sigmund Freud

We all talk: sometimes to particular persons; sometimes to anyone who will listen; and sometimes to ourselves when we can’t find anyone to listen. In this blog, however, we’re only interested in one piece, one element of talk--and research: words--and how they work in any context. Word choice, perhaps more today than any other time in business, is a unique expertise, a technology made necessary by the knowledge economy. Writers understand the importance of word choice, but the notion that word choice is very important in business doesn't seem to get much play. There's little carryover from literature or, say...medicine. Of course, most people understand the necessary accuracy of words chosen by physicians, especially when making a diagnosis. Today, the smart, up-and-comer in business can facilitate his career with expertise in words. Words, you see, are still magic.


This is not solely because of the technology economy, but also because of newly described understandings of communication and modern rhetoric and how words work. The starting point of conversation is words. They are the symbols of talk, research and artificial intelligence, symbols that we attach, by consensus and tradition, to objects, experiences, ideas and relations that create responses in us and others. It’s very important, therefore, to recognize a number of inherent characteristics about words—and how they impact messages in conversation--and how they make a familiar experience or problem unique...sometimes for the good. But other times for the bad.

Five characteristics of words define both their potential and their complexity:  

Words are dynamic
Words do a lot more than merely convey information. Although the meaning of a word can change drastically over long periods of time, words are also tweaked in most conversations. Their meaning is associated with what one person is trying to get across and how the other is responding. So tweaking may emphasize values, emotions, defensiveness or empathy and clarify priorities, goals, strategies, commitments or success. That’s true for both sides of an interaction: initiator and responder.

A caveat: Although some believe that the dynamic nature of words means that talkers are free to use words any way they like and break the rules of proper English, that’s an absurd parody of “dynamic.”

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