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Say What?—The Changing Meaning of Words
by Rod Johnson

It’s been 9-years since the challenging of a single word defined the presidency of Bill Clinton when he told the Grand Jury:

“It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is”

When these words were uttered, at the very least, it was eloquent, inspiring and at the same time unbecoming, double-speak. Here was the President of the United States professing with eloquent ease that just maybe - words have no meaning.

Of course this is preposterous. Words absolutely have meaning. Just go ahead and ask Merriam Webster. You know, Merriam, the author of that proverbial best selling book that collects dust on your bookshelf. It’s where you go when you need to decipher what the true meaning of the word “is” is. For most, the dictionary is a staple - as much a part of life as apple pie and baseball.

However before you become too comfortable, don’t expect the Generation X, Y, and Z group to share your enthusiasm for the meaning of words; because they’ve created and adopted new variants of the English language like text messaging - which is really a form of shorthand. Of course you knew that: But JIC (just in case) you didn’t, here’s a taste:

143 = I love you
DARFC = Ducking and running for cover
EOD = End of day
FITB = Fill in the blanks
ISS = I said so

Yes, words have been morphed to fit the age of electronic - and double yes, the Age of Aquarius feels so irrelevant in the 21st century.

I’ve come to realize that language is quickly becoming less about structure and meaning, and more about art and culture. In fact President Clinton's comment made him a thought leader in this transition when he posited that infamous phrase. After all, what followed in his testimony was pure art, it was a form of Muhammad Ali’s famous “rope-a-dope,” the strategy where one purposely puts themselves in what appears to be a losing position, only to be crowned the victor.

What does all this mean to you?
If communication becomes art and culture, then it suggests that future communication will exponentially grow in complexity. At the very least, it will be significantly different than in days past. Yet we know that good communication is vital - important for every leader’s success and essential to the vitality of every business. Words like authentic, inspiring and passionate come to mind.

So what can we and should we do?
First, we must accept that communication is as much about words as it is about expression, which suggests it will be perceived from a position of art and culture. Second, language is never static. It is always morphing and emerging as new cultures surface to define themselves in this extremely noisy planet in which we live. Third, we must adapt to new forms of communication that deliver our message from a perspective that our audience can hear.

For instance, I met with a consultant friend who was retained to decipher why cross-functional departments inside the research division of a major energy company were dysfunctional. What quickly surfaced was a “What is the meaning of the word is” scenario. It appears that each department used a similar lingo, but over time each had attached different meaning to the words and phrases that met their internal needs - not necessarily their external needs. Once identified, a common language was created and workplace synergy and effectiveness grew - a simple outcome to a serious and costly issue.

“Why should you make such a big deal about such a simple topic?” As you know, it’s the “Little Things” that tend to have the greatest impact on performance. Once you get the little things right, the big issues fall into line more easily. And guess what - communication is a little thing (we assume we’re good communicators - after all, “I mean what I mean”) that has a really big impact on every aspect of the organization.

So the next time an employee gives you a blank stare, you might have to go back to square one and ask yourself, “What is the meaning of FITB and ISS, is?”

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