31 October 2011

The specialists

One way in which semantics occasionally pops into the news is through the ironic newspaper comment about how a 'dustman' is now called a 'sanitation engineer', or some other similar change. It is, the argument goes, political correctness gone mad.

This may trouble sociologists, too, as there is usually a wish to get away from the cultural baggage that has collected around a particular term. With so many years of associations and implications lumped onto the word 'secretary', the use of the word 'assistant' might be viewed as an escape from history.

One problem with this is that all words carry some form of cultural flavour. The word 'dustman' may have a certain semantic taste, but so does the word 'engineer'. Changing the term invites other unintentional interpretations. Check out the comedy series The Office, which plays on the distinction between 'assistant regional manager' and 'assistant to the regional manager'. (And as an aside, this is one piece of word play that successfully made the jump from the British version to the American franchise. Semantics can be a universal tool in power games.)

If, instead, we want to travel down the path of greater clarity, then we recognise that not all builders are scaffolders, even if all scaffolders are builders. Terminologists tackle these issues through concept systems, which depict the semantic links between terms.

However, we sometimes need a reality check for the way we express the concept that we choose.

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