Loaded meanings: the challenge of choosing the right word

17 January 2020

In times of crisis, or when trying to convey a sensitive message, it can be difficult to find the right words. Dictionaries help us by providing definitions, but these definitions don’t always convey the emotions or deeper meaning behind a word.

The multifaceted meaning of the word 'hero'

During bushfire crises, we frequently see the terms ‘hero’ and ‘brave’ used to describe our volunteer firefighters. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a hero as ‘a person who is admired for their courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.’ To be brave is to be ‘willing to do things that are difficult, dangerous, or painful; not afraid’.

But do we all infer the same meaning from these words? To many of us, the words ‘hero’ and ‘brave’ are positive words that conjure up images of an everyday person who is willing to put their life on the line for the benefit of others. In times of crisis, we feel enormous gratitude towards these people and struggle to find the right words to express that overwhelming appreciation.

To be called a ‘hero’ or ‘brave’ can also feel like a lot of pressure. In a recent article, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported that their research with Victoria’s Black Saturday firefighters revealed the volunteer firefighters don't want us to see them as heroes. The firefighters explained that calling them heroes overstates their ability to control fires and downplays the long-term psychological impacts of fighting fires.

The article goes on to say that rather than putting too much emphasis on valourising and memorialising firefighters as heroes, governments need to ensure the landscape is managed appropriately, that our firefighters have the resources to fight fires, and that there is effective, science-based climate policy. In other words, we need appropriate action.

Understanding the deeper meaning of words

Recent media reports, social media posts and personal stories of the current bushfire crisis are a testament to how words can help lead to compassion and positive action. Extraordinary amounts of money have been raised through the power of words and images, which have transmitted at lightning speed via social media and other websites. Extensive media reports from reporters and photographers, as well as citizens, on the front line have meant people around the globe have gained some understanding (as well as some misunderstanding) of our bushfire crisis.

In the end, actions do speak louder than words. But whatever we are writing, we have a responsibility to try and understand the bigger meaning behind our words. We need to continually strive to choose the right words by exploring their potential impact. We need our words to lead to the best actions, whether this be to ensure our clients or customers understand their rights, our workers have clear safety instructions or to raise awareness about our climate emergency.

For help choosing the right words, contact Concise Writing Consultancy 02 9238 6638 today.

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-01-03/black-saturday-firefighters-dont-want-to-be-called-heroes/11837478

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