Saying what you mean, meaning what you say, and what all this has to do with landing the Triple Lutz

I once had a friend who lived, breathed and ate sports. He was in multiple fantasy leagues and could quote you stats about just about anyone who made an impact on the games he loved, which were baseball, hockey and football. Those were his big three, as they are for many people. For some, basketball supplants hockey. For some, it’s a big four, not a big three.

But when the Olympics roll around, everything changes. Suddenly the javelin throw is interesting, or track cycling. And like my old friend, suddenly people who follow three or four major professional sports religiously bring that same fervour to ALL sports. This really hit home for me the day I walked into his living room and he was waxing authoritative about one individual’s figure skating performance. “She didn’t do the Triple Lutz!” he proclaimed in astonishment.

Three months previously, my friend neither knew nor cared what a Lutz, a Salchow or a Toe Loop was. Now he not only cared what they were, but he could identify them and pronounce on whether they were performed successfully.  

You know what I couldn’t really define three months ago? Social distancing.

A couple weeks ago I saw a post on LinkedIn trying to describe social distancing in plain language. The poster mentioned a few of the things that social distancing means, including keeping two metres away from people, staying home except for essential trips, and a couple of other measures. 

It was a laudable effort, but an unnecessary one.

When COVID-19 was still mainly a blip on the media horizon, the local media included in a story title the phrase, “confirmed presumptive case of coronavirus.” 

In addition to being a mouthful, it sounded both contradictory and confusing (is it confirmed or is it presumed? As it turns out, authorities were confirming that they were presuming…. ), not to mention unclear (What exactly does “presumptive” mean in this context anyway?).

As the virus began to hit home, both literally and figuratively, we started to hear more and more of this kind of jargony language in the media, including talk of social distancing as a way to control the spread. The term was at first followed by explanations, and it didn’t take long for it to enter the vernacular. Consequently, definitions and explanations began to become so much noise, like someone trying to define coffee or bread. Sure it might be valuable to explain them to someone from another planet someday, but a waste of breath to tell you or me what they are right now.

So what’s my point?

Although we should always strive to write clearly, there are actually times when the best term might be the jargony one. There might have been a time when we needed to define coffee. In fact, Bob Newhart once did a hilarious take on Sir Walter Raleigh trying to describe tobacco and coffee to his bosses back in London.

But that was more than 400 years ago. Similarly, there was a time, however brief, when we needed to define social distancing. That time, though, has mostly passed, at least in most countries. Sometimes the most appropriate term is not the most descriptive one, but the most familiar. Maybe this is one of those times. 

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