I am periodically reminded of how important it is, when talking to an expert in something, to use the correct words. There are a lot of words that I know the meaning of only in a general sort of way. That’s good enough when I run into them in a story or hear them in a conversation about something else, but not adequate when I need to communicate a problem.
Imagine the following conversation.
Me: “My computer doesn’t have enough memory.”
Husband-who-works-with-computers-professionally: “Really? Not enough memory?”
Me: “Yes, my computer keeps saying it doesn’t have enough space to back up my Scrivener files.”
Husband: “Oh, your hard drive is full.”
Me (suddenly remembering that there is such a thing as RAM): “Yes, that’s what I mean.”
Husband: “I’ll take a look.”
I’m not saying that actually happened, mind you… but there are a lot of terms associated with computer use that haven’t always been clearly distinct in my mind. There’s the computer itself (whatever components that refers to), and then there’s its operating system, any applications that have been loaded onto it (including a browser), and then a bunch of other files created by using those applications. It’s taken me a while to distinguish between the applications and the (data) files created with them. It doesn’t help that the applications are also themselves comprised of files. It’s easier to keep straight if I think about the files for my novel, Adrift, and distinguish them from the Scrivener program I used to write them with.
(A slight digression. Think of those scam calls—“Hello, I’m Betty from Windows, and I’m calling about your computer…” “No, you aren’t, because Windows is an operating system, not a computer company, and anyway Microsoft isn’t going to give me that kind of personalized attention unless I first give them buckets of money.”)
There are many other areas where I discover my vocabulary is lacking. The construction of my own house is a bit of a mystery. It has joists, studs, drywall (which is the same as sheetrock, I think), and up above it has a roof with rafters, eaves, gables (maybe?), and soffits (is that part of the roof?). I don’t think much about these words when I read them in passing, but when someone is discussing potential damage to the floor from a leaky shower and whether it has affected the joist, suddenly I'm interested.
I also need the right words so I can describe a problem over the phone accurately—and without sounding stupid to myself. I don’t want to tell the plumber, “The problem is the bathroom sink. The faucet. I mean, the tap. That thing you turn to start the water where one is for hot and one is for cold.” I’ve used the word “tap” before, but in the moment when it matters, I find myself wondering, “Is that the tap?”
Inadequate vocabulary is most a problem in discussing subjects that, while important, are not of interest to me. Since I’ve never been particularly into cars, it was some time before I really caught on to the distinction between “wheel” and “tire”. I always sort of thought of them as a unit, the four round things that roll. But don’t tell your husband you think the wheel is damaged when you really mean the tire. You could give him a heart attack. Or a stroke.
Okay, I’m exaggerating as a lead-in to my last set of examples—medical terms. As a kid, I lumped together “heart attack”, “stroke”, “heart failure”, “cardiac arrest”, “coronary”, and “apoplexy” as terms for a bad thing that could happen suddenly and which seemed, in popular expressions, to be linked to sudden shocks or anger.
Now that I’m older, I know that heart attacks involve a problem with the blood supply to part of the heart muscle, and strokes involve a problem with the blood supply to part of the brain. Not the same thing. On looking the other terms up, I find that “coronary” is often used to mean “heart attack” and “apoplexy” to mean “stroke”, but that heart failure means the heart is weak and not working very well, and that cardiac arrest just means the heart has stopped for whatever reason.
But being older and (a little bit) wiser doesn’t mean there aren’t other health-related words I’m misusing. There was some word I used in describing a problem to my doctor which I later realized probably had a very specific meaning for the doctor, and not the meaning I had intended. Further, the doctor, being used to the specific terminology, probably didn’t even realize that I was using it loosely and inaccurately. And that is a communication problem.
I wish I could remember now what the particular word was. Instead, I’ll just offer as an example “dizzy” versus “light-headed”, which apparently have slightly different uses.
Using the right words is important. With them, you can be precise in describing a problem with your computer or your health. Without them, you can inadvertantly create a lot of confusion. Eight-plus years studying philosophy contributed to my concern for correct use of words (“if…then…” is not the same as “if and only if”), but it didn’t teach me how to distinguish a joist from a stud, or a trot from a canter. Some distinctions only get learned when experience makes them relevant.