Tag Archives: etymology

Calling a spade a spade when you open the kimono going off the reservation

Our language is a product of our culture, and as such there are a great many idioms and phrases within our lexicon that have their roots in bigotry, sexism and oppression. There is an excellent series on NPR which digs into the roots of these cultural snippets and examines their etymology.

Now we’ve all, at some point used one of these idioms without giving it a second thought or knowing the darker roots. When the dinner bill arrives, and you decide you should each pay for just your own meal, you may suggest to your friend that it be “Dutch treat”.

In all likelihood, anyone who’s “gone Dutch” has absolutely no ill-will towards the people of the Netherlands. Likely they haven’t given a second thought towards the Dutch at all. And when you examine the neuroscience you can see that there is, quite literally, no second thought.

When a metaphor is used, the brain fires up in all the areas pertaining to the involved senses. But for many popular idioms – “barking up the wrong tree“, “burn the midnight oil“, “back to the drawing board” – the brain treats it on par with any other word.   The phrase is so overused that it no longer holds any visual or sensual impact for the brain, but is treated as a word.  “Split the bill” and “let’s go dutch” are treated by your brain as one and the same; just a collection of words.

But the important thing to remember is that in professional communications, it’s not what’s happening in your head that matters but what’s happening in the minds of your your audience.

If your audience take offense, then regardless of your intent, offense was given.  Most professional communications are intended to create a connection, or elevate the esteem others have for your brand.   Giving offense works at odds to achieving that.

Even if no party involved takes offense, there is reason enough to avoid the phrase. No one may see you as being bigoted towards the Dutch, but they could interpret the continued use of the phrase as archaic and a sign that you are behind the times.

Last, but maybe most important, the idiom is equated in your mind with language because it has been so overused that it no longer holds figurative power. You chose a particular turn of phrase because you were hoping to spark something and instead you fired off a dud.  Good writers know that every single word ought to have importance and mean something.  On your second or third reading of your draft you ought to have cleansed your work of empty phrases, lazy usage of the language and words that may not convey the meaning you intend to convey.