Calibrating Terminology

Accepting the challenges inherent in understanding one another.

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By Karen Yin • January 7, 2016

Calibration. This is what I’ve been pondering over my holiday break.

In Philosophy 101, we learn that, to engage in effective discourse, we must first define our terms. By understanding—and agreeing on—what certain words mean, we are calibrating with one another. Then it becomes easier to communicate, converse, connect.

But what if we, as a society, struggle or refuse to calibrate our terms? Why should people who have been hurt by language be forced to use the same language? This is what that word means. No, that is what that word means. And then we stack meanings on top of those meanings until we are speaking different languages. For example, competing meanings of transgender make it possible for us to be cis and trans at the same time. The pansexual identity competes with the bisexual identity even when people mean the same thing (i.e., inclusive of all genders, not just two).

All this analysis, debate, and animosity over words, I appreciate it because it means we care about calibrating.

As a longtime editor, I use my judgment in knowing when to hold the line and when to let the line change shape—but it is important to let the latter happen. There are ways to mitigate the confusion, such as choosing which terminology to clarify for which audience, how, and when.

No matter how confusing, amazing, bewildering, or enthralling language becomes, I applaud its evolution. I must, because I’m not interested in trying to control anybody. I offer this reference site only for people who are curious or serious about conscious language, for those of us who are shopping around for thoughtful words.

We are all stakeholders in language. All this analysis, debate, and animosity over words, I appreciate it because it means we care about calibrating, about seeing eye to eye and inviting others to share our points of view. Even when it doesn’t seem to be happening, it’s important that we try.

Karen has long wavy hair and is smiling into the camera. She's wearing a gray T-shirt and an aquamarine pendant.Karen Yin is the founder of Conscious Style Guide, a resource for inclusive, empowering, and respectful language, Editors of Color, tools for diversifying your staff and sources, and AP vs. Chicago, an irreverent language blog for anyone who “gives a dollar sign, ampersand, exclamation point, and pound sign about style.” She received the 2017 Robinson Prize for furthering the craft of professional editing.

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