You say tomato, I say…

3 August 2009 0 By Viv McWaters

A friend, who shall remain nameless for the time being, wrote an update on Facebook the other day saying she had just bought a new bathing suit. Now apart from the fact that I am insanely jealous of seemingly EVERYONE ELSE in the world who is taking holidays right now, and I’m not, this little update got me thinking about language.

Bathing suit. In Australia that translates as bathers.

Swimming costume. Well, that’s obviously a cossie.

Then there’s swimmers, togs, Speedos, boardies and for men only, budgie smugglers.

I can’t stress how important it is to clarify the meaning of words. As I work more and more internationally, I find myself asking time and again: ‘what do you mean when you say [insert word]’?

The more abstract the word, the more likely there is to be misunderstanding. I was once travelling through corn country in the US, from Indianapolis to Chicago. I was on an agricultural journalists’ tour. It was a lot of fun, there we were, a bunch of agricultural journos from around the world doing a road trip through wide open spaces, stopping to visit farmers. And the most amazing corn factory. They made everything out of corn. There were corn pens, and paper, and oil, and food. As far as I know the whole building was made of corn. But I digress. Apart from my accent meaning I was virtually unintelligible, obviously my questions made little sense too. We were visiting a farmer who had reclaimed a lot of marshy country. The water was collected into drains and flowed away. I asked where? He looked at me as if I was from another planet and answered, away. Obvious really. Then I asked about biodiversity. And his reply was that he grew corn and beans. Well, that’s OK then!

Over dinner one night I found myself having a heated discussion with a local journalist about organic agriculture. I don’t remember much, except the moment when I asked ‘what do you actually mean by organic?’ That’s when we discovered we were talking about two completely different things. There was some confusion regarding organic and biodynamic. Anyway, the lesson stuck. I’m reminded of this any time I ask someone what they mean by consensus, or outcome, or sustainable or even workshop! Or heaven forbid, facilitation.

It pays to clarify meaning, and simply illuminates how our different experiences manifest in the language we use.