You better choose your words carefully

Reading time: 4 mins

Anyone who has hit a brick wall with their vocabulary and resorted to summoning a thesaurus, has probably experienced that picking an apparently synonymous word can actually result in a totally different message.

For example, according to, if searching for a new way to declare my love for someone, I could end up with the following:

“I love you”

“I lust you”

“I fondness you”

“I respect you”

or even, if I’m in a particularly Gallagher-esque mood:

“I mad for you”

I like to imagine that the last one is how my friend Paul broke the news to his lovely wife Emma.

Depending on the context, some of these could end up with unexpected responses. I’m not sure that my Mum would be too keen to hear that I “lust” her, or that “I fondness you” will be making its way into greetings cards any time soon.

Slightly different slants on our choice of words can have big impacts. Telling someone that I love them is important to me, and is only something that I say if I really mean. I don’t want that to be lost in translation, or for it to be interpreted wrongly due to mis-perception of the terms I’m using.

The words we use in everyday conversation are important, but in industries where we frequently use terminology that may be unfamiliar to outsiders, we should be especially aware of how our message comes across.

Some of the public’s reception to terminology used during the current Winter Olympics shows that when people are faced with language they may not normally come across, confusion and misunderstanding can prevail. For example, the BBC had to offer a clarification after the British Snowboarder Billy Morgan stated live that “I just thought, huck it”. Sage Kotsenburg, after winning gold, conducted his winner’s press conference with dialogue including how “stoked” he was, which caused Russian confusion. “Stoked” in their interpretation refers to being under the influence, giving a very different meaning to his run and subsequent statements.

Within our digital conversations we too are guilty of using terminology that makes sense to us, but may be utterly baffling to others. ‘Simple’ terms like “back-end“, “client-side“, “progressive enhancement“, “end-points”, “ship it”, “sprints”, “epics”, and even “responsive“, that may be used daily by us, could be meaningless and confusing to someone without our vocabulary. Our “sprint to wireframe and ship the dynamic prototype for the responsive navigation with a large screen breakpoint for 1024, fluid to a mid-breakpoint, then jumping off-canvas to a side-swipe drawer/hamburger combo at a small breakpoint” is arguably comparable to “a cab 270 to switch, half-cab on back 540 off flat down, half-cab layback slide off the cannon back 180 out, cab double cork 1260 holy crail, frontside 1080 off the toes rocket air and backside 1620 Japan” – those unfamiliar with the terminology may get the gist, but likely won’t have the faintest idea what the detail entails.

People can be scared to ask about terminology or acronyms they don’t understand. Even working as a professional in this industry, coming to work with an agency who work frequently with video on demand (VOD) products meant that there were some awkward pauses initially when I had to get an explanation or confirm my understanding of SVOD, TVOD, AVOD, EST, EPG, VOSP, PSB, STB – terms which are every-day within that particular community. When speaking to a new party, take the time to provide context to your terminology in a way that tries not to patronise or belittle people for their understanding.

We also have a responsibility to be careful with our choices of words which, although they may be similar, can actually have very different meanings. When referring to breakpoints, try to ensure that terminology such as “small, medium, large”, or “narrow and wide” is used instead of referring to specific device names (“iPad”) or even device types (“tablet/mobile”). Using terminology such as “iPad portrait” may lead to you having to specifically demonstrate what “iPad landscape” looks like, rather than instead demonstrating how components flex between their own content-specific breakpoints. Conversely, if you are creating a device-specific application, clarity can be key – in this instance you don’t want any confusion that your iOS-designed interface will simply be ported to Android.

Next time you’re explaining something, think carefully about the choice of words that you’re using, whether they’re appropriate to your audience, and if you need to provide any additional context.