“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” That famous quote comes from William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet. Juliet utters that line to Romeo as she makes the point that no matter his name (he was a Montague and his family was at odds with Juliet’s family, the Capulets) he is still the man she loves.
It’s a well-known line that does contain an element of truth because the rose would smell every bit as sweet no matter what we called it. However, if we renamed the rose something like “The Dogcrap Flower,” very few people would be willing to even sniff it.
This understanding came to light recently when I approached an individual about an idea I had. I wanted to rename something but I knew this person was heavily invested in the current name. Here’s how I approached the conversation:
Me – Have you ever had Patagonian Toothfish?
Other – (making an “ewe gross” sound) No, I
don’t think I have. Sounds kind of gross.
Me – Have you tried Chilean Seabass?
Other – Yes, I love it.
Me – Did you know they’re the same thing? (I hear a chuckle). Nobody was buying Patagonian Toothfish because it sounds bad so they renamed it Chilean Seabass in the 1970s. I bring this up because I think we have a naming problem.
From there I described the problem and the other person agreed rather quickly to explore the name change.
Aside from an example like that, names, words and labels matter a lot! And it doesn’t always matter what the dictionary has to say about what a word means because ultimately we give meaning to words. Understanding your audience and their interpretation of words is what matters most. Here are a few examples.
Thug – a violent criminal (Merriam-Webster)
We heard this word used repeatedly in connection with the recent Baltimore riots. It’s true that those who looted and destroyed were violent criminals. However, many people came down hard on those who used the word – including Baltimore’s mayor and President Obama (both African-American) – because in society the word has become more closely associated with African-Americans. There was a time when the word was used to describe Irish immigrant criminals, gangsters in the 1920s and 1930s, and even former Detroit Piston center Bill Lambier. But the connotation in today’s media is so heavily skewed towards African-Americans that it’s becoming a race-related word.
Niggardly – hating to spend money, very small amount (Merriam-Webster)
In 1999 David Howard used this word when referring to the budget for Washington D.C. and was relieved of his position after a race-related complaint. Eventually he took a different position working for the city and said he learned from the incident.
Bastard – a person born to parents not married to each other (TheFreeDictionary.com)
We can probably all think of someone we know who was born to parents who never married. If you used this word to describe that someone you’d probably get popped in the mouth or get an earful of condemnation for being insensitive. Most people in that situation would have no problem talking about their parents never marrying but would not take kindly to the label.
There was an urban legend about the Chevy Nova not selling in Spanish speaking countries because in Spanish Nova means “no go.” There was no truth to the story but it too belies the point that a name can have a profound impact on the listener.
What does this have to do with persuasion? A lot! Understanding your audience – what words will help and what words will offend – and keeping in mind your ultimate goal will help you craft your persuasive message.
Do we want to see race relations improve in this country? I believe the vast majority of people would say yes.
Tossing around the word thug, when you know how it will be perceived, is not something a smart persuader would do. If an African-American mayor and president can’t avoid controversy then neither will you.
Budgets may be tight but the wise persuader would not use the word niggardly – no matter how the dictionary defines it – because they realize someone will be offended and their message will be lost.
If you want to help tackle the issue of children being born out of wedlock you best not refer to those children as bastards because you’ll offend so many people that your desire to help and good ideas will never be heard.
Yes, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet but rename it incorrectly and almost nobody will take a sniff. The words we use can make all the difference so make sure your words work for you, not against you.