Words matter. At their best, they evoke common understanding, connection and feeling. At their worst they mislead, misrepresent and divide.
All words are an abstraction of sorts, a representation of something very real. On a range of issues, experts too often rely on particularly abstract words that are so open to interpretation one could drive a truck through it.
Metaphors are the opposite, they attach to an idea something we can easily relate to and understand. They can be so visceral that we feel the words.
For example, the idea of social mobility can be abstract. Climbing the ladder conjures an image we can all relate to.
When we talk about poverty, also a relatively abstract concept, it can elicit judgements ranging from pity to moral inferiority. Yet when we use words like hardships or not having enough money “to get by”, the images in our minds are ones we can more easily connect with. For who hasn’t struggled in one way or another?
Alissa Quart has a way with such words. She is Executive Editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. I first came to her work through her book: Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America. Her next book Bootstrapped: Liberating Ourselves from the American Dream is due out later this fall. Her organization has launched the podcast, Going for Broke. By the titles alone, you can see a richness in the simplicity of her language.
Speaking of podcasts, I interviewed Alissa for the first episode in our second season of my podcast Attribution (I know that word is an abstraction but one I am trying to make more of a household idea – much like empathy has become over the last ten years – except without the political baggage.)
If you love words, I think you’ll find this fascinating. For example, the origin of the word bootstrapping is almost comical and its story is instructive about the dangers when we allow words to be co-opted without challenge.
I hope you have a listen.