Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Pedantic Semantics: Why Word Choice Matters

I'll be the first to admit I can get a bit pedantic at times. I've even gotten in the habit of calling myself The Pedantic Panther when I get particularly picky in my writing group. But the thing is, words matter. Word choice matters. Here's one of my favorite examples of how that works in the broader world:

Here are a few words and phrases that are used a lot within library circles that bother me:

Free. Don't call the library's services "free." These things are not free. Not for us and not for the communities we serve. I don't have the biggest budget around, but even for my library the amount I pay for database subscriptions is not even close to free. Instead I say things like "included with the price of tuition," and when I talk about our consortium and the benefits it brings to my community, I say "our tax dollars at work." This might seem like splitting hairs, but then again there's that old saying "you get what you pay for" and I'd rather people think about their tuition and tax dollars with regards to the library than $0.00.

Scavenger Hunt. First of all, this particular kind of assignment is hard to pull off, pedagogically speaking. Learning doesn't stick if it's not contextualized. But that's besides the point. There's a pertinent quote from an old film that I saw when I was a teenager and on a classic movie kick. The movie is My Man Godfrey and the quote: 
"A scavenger hunt is exactly like a treasure hunt, except in a treasure hunt you try to find something you want, and in a scavenger hunt you try to find something that nobody wants."
So, if you must engage in that teaching approach, please call it a treasure hunt.

Customers. I know this is going to tick off some people, but thinking of the people who walk into our buildings as customers puts us on opposite sides of a transaction. Never mind the problematic aspects of "the customer is always right," (which they aren't... customers are frequently wrong). Let's focus on what it does to our thinking about those people: it turns the relationship into an Us vs Them kind of thing. And that's not what we want - not at all. Instead, think of them as members of your community. You're also a member of your community, right? In a lot of cases you live or work in the same municipality as your library, and at the very least you are a staff member of the institution. Also, if you think of the people who walk into your building as members of your community suddenly it's a partnership and you're on the same side. Working with instead of for, see what I mean?

Okay, so yes - I know I sometimes split hairs about words and word usage. Sometimes overly so. But other times word choice is important. Words frame our thinking about ourselves and our communities, so please do so carefully as you choose words both in what you say and what you write. The mindset you change just might be your own

So how about you? Do you have any pet peeves about library jargon? 


  1. Not a pet peeve, but related to library users as members of our community. I'm still in MLS program, which is a relevant piece of information because this little anecdote relates to a class project. We had a group project to review and improve the information architecture of an entity's website. Our group chose a social service provider organization. Well, during our presentation one of my groupmates kept talking about "patrons"--but he didn't mean the people who receive services (as one might think in a library context, see Tegan's post above), he meant donors. After I got over my confusion, I started to ponder what that meant for libraries. No conclusions, just something additional to think about.

  2. Great post! I from a YS perspective I also bristle at the phrase "scavenger hunt", but because this is the only time the kids ever hear the word "scavenger" so there's no real meaning at all. So I've called them "room hunts"; or, if it's part of, say, a superhero party, a "bad guy find". I might try "treasure hunt" sometime-- connotation is everything!