The Murder Of Our Meaning


You know what I hate? I hate it when our use of the language makes us look like idiots.

If we would begin to talk honestly with each other, it would help things. If we could learn to communicate simply and clearly without being caught up in how we sound, we might be able to make a better world. I don’t know if it would solve world hunger, cure cancer, or stop Trump from Tweeting. But I’m sure things would be better.

You’re probably wondering what put the burr under my saddle. I’ll tell you.

The other day, I had a question about retirement benefits. I attempted to call the personnel office of a former employer. I couldn’t find Personnel in the company’s phone listing. I tried searching for Human Resources. That’s the name they gave it decades ago. It always made me feel like I was being processed rather than accommodated. But, alas, there was not a resource to be found, human or otherwise. I finally called the main number, so I could speak with a real human resource.

“XYZ Company, how may I direct your call?”

“I’m trying to reach your personnel office.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Your personnel office. Maybe you call it Human Resources.”

There was a long silence. I assume the young lady was checking a list. Maybe she was new.

“I’m sorry, I don’t find a listing for that.”

“That makes two of us. OK, let me ask you a question. You got hired by the company. Did you have to fill out an application?”

“Well, yes.”

“And what office did you go to, in order to fill out that application?”

“Ohhhhhh! You need our Talent Agency.”

“Your what?

“Our Talent Agency! I’ll connect you.”

If you detect a note of sarcasm here, it’s entirely intentional. It appears that companies are now calling their personnel department a Talent Agency. It makes me think that if I opened the door and walked in there, I would find a sleazy looking guy with sunglasses and a checkered sport coat, asking me to come back in and play it a little differently.   Do they still do interviews in there, or do they hold auditions? I understand the message in the name change. The message will be all about how they are searching for the best employees, and how they’re trying to match talent with job duties for the best fit, etc. But that’s exactly what a good personnel office was trying to do fifty years ago.

I find far too many instances today where a group or organization has changed the name of something without fundamentally changing what the thing is. This isn’t to say that personnel departments don’t behave properly or that they need to change. I’m sure they do a wonderful job of finding the right employees. But the sign on their door should say HIRING AND FIRING. That sign would probably cause the self-esteem of a million millennials to plummet, but that’s what a personnel office does. They hire and fire people. I doubt very much that their purpose has changed.

This annoying need to constantly re-brand things says a lot about our society and its attitude toward real change and improvement. I worked fifty years for a variety of companies and organizations.  My experience teaches me that when I run across a new name or a new title, it’s almost always a new person trying to make a name for himself. Literally. If the thing hasn’t really changed and improved in some fundamental way, then Talent Agency in our companies is no better than New And Improved on a box of detergent. It’s meaningless. We’re no different than Pavlov’s dogs and if you don’t give us meaning for a long enough time, we’ll come to expect the lack of it.

If a sword has been beaten into a plowshare, then by all means, call it a plowshare. But if it’s still a sword, well, there are plenty of people where I live who know the difference. And if you think it’s a plow, don’t take up farming except as a hobby. Changing the name of something without changing the thing itself will fool only some of the people some of the time–until that Pavlov’s dogs thing kicks in. And it’s just stupid. There really isn’t any other word for it.

I will loosely quote Strunk and White’s writing advice in The Elements Of Style here, but I think it’s really advice for life: “If you want to be obscure, be obscure clearly. Be elliptical in a straightforward fashion.” That’s good advice. The important thing about your name or your manner of speaking or writing is not you. The important thing is that the person seeing or hearing or reading understands who you are and what you said. It ain’t rocket science and it doesn’t have to be pretty. It has to be understood.

Having gotten that off my chest, I would like to know why, in the past few years, people are telling me to “reach out” to someone, when what they really mean is ask.”

“Sir, I don’t know the answer to your question, but I am going to reach out to my associates for the answer.”

“I checked with my associates, and our best advice is for you to reach out to Social Security for the answer.

Did they need two words where one worked just fine? Here are two words: check with. Wouldn’t that be more clear? Reaching out makes me feel like I’m on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It makes me want to reach out through the telephone line and strangle the person who said it. I’m not that helpless. Yet. All this reaching out is just more of the notion that “if we call it something different, it may not change, but we’ll feel good.”  It’s the millenialistic mantra of people who, rather than working hard and feeling good about it, tend to sit in a circle and sing kumbaya.  I suspect somebody with low self-esteem got it all started.

dbsig2 I hope those of you reading this will reach out to everybody else and get all of this resolved, hopefully by next week. My wife says I’m not a patient person. Maybe it’s a good thing I am retired.

2 thoughts on “The Murder Of Our Meaning

  1. My institution is the one guilty of this word salad (Talent Agency).
    It goes beyond HR. The various meeting rooms in the institution used to be named for trees (Oak, Maple, Birch, etc). Everyone was used to them AND where they were.
    The have now been renamed for emotional states. (Inspiration, Thrive, etc.) They are the same rooms they always were. Except no one can find them.


    1. This actually made me laugh out loud. I’m wondering who meets in DEPRESSION? And what about that meeting in the ANGST room? Those folks seem a little antsy. DB


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s