Monday, August 29, 2011


Define that

In the Lerner & Loewe's musical version of Geo. Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, A Play in Five Acts, Professor 'enry 'iggins loudly challenges his chum with "Why can't the English learn to speak . . . the language!"

The original "My Fair Lady" debuted on Broadway in 1956; the film version dates to 1964, roughly the same time as the Von Trapps were singing across the alps of New York and Hollywood.

Shaw's complaint in 1912, Pygmalion's initial publication date, remains a valid complaint to this day.

Granted, English is a "living language." What was nouveau in 1912 often was passé' by 1956 and down right ancient by mid-(19)60s.

Still, some words linger and find themselves in the vocabularies of the 21st century.

Unfortunately, and I blame it on our laziness, we - practitioners in particular - no longer use words in their "common" - as in "most understood," not "vulgar" - form. Punctuation also has been abused, and, along with our choices of words, can wreak havoc when we try to communicate critical thoughts to others. For an interesting appreciation of punctuation, watch Victor Borge explain Phonetic Pronunciation at

I'm not talking - this time - about "alphabet soup" or even "techno-speak."

I'm talking about "plain English." Yes, I know the problem exists in other languages as well, but this blog is in English and the few visitors to it are English speakers/readers.

For example, a person asked "When does an incident become a crisis."

Pretty straight forward question.

But the answers suggest that how Merriam-Webster defines "incident" and "crisis" and how some of the responders define those words are substantially different.

Just for the record, M-W defines "incident" as


1: something dependent on or subordinate to something else of greater or principal importance


    a : an occurrence of an action or situation that is a separate unit of experience : happening

    b : an accompanying minor occurrence or condition :concomitant

3: an action likely to lead to grave consequences especially in diplomatic matters

and "crisis" as

cri•sis plural cri•ses


    a : the turning point for better or worse in an acute disease or fever

    b : a paroxysmal attack of pain, distress, or disordered function

    c : an emotionally significant event or radical change of status in a person's life

2: the decisive moment


    a : an unstable or crucial time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending; especially : one with the distinct possibility of a highly undesirable outcome

    b : a situation that has reached a critical phase

Frankly, I don't like the word "crisis" in relation to risk management. "Crisis" suggests that things have gotten out of control and that suggests a lack of preparation.

I will accept that something can reach a "crisis STAGE" - as an example, a hurricane pushing a huge tidal way toward the island of Hispaniola, or the liftoff of a space shuttle, but for events at most organizations, "crisis" should only be a word in a dictionary.

I am not discounting the "crisis management" function - I was on a "crisis management team" once, but our job was not to manage a "crisis" but to make certain an incident did not become a crisis. "Crisis prevention" would have been a better title.

It behooves practitioners, especially those of us who create the related and necessary documentation, to c a r e f u l l y select the words, and perhaps graphics as well, that we use for each specific audience.

It only takes a moment or two to visit an on-line dictionary - searching in an unabridged is much more interesting . . . and time consuming - to determine the most understood word for the thought you are trying to convey.

If the listener or reader fails to comprehend what you are trying to convey; if the listener or reader can possibly "interpret" the words, not only have you failed to communicate but you also may be making an incident into a crisis.

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