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Word Choice Matters

"You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

· Random Thoughts

This last week I defended my thesis and it all went swimmingly. I got up in front of about 20 people, told them everything I’ve done the last 7 years, and then four of them signed a piece of paper saying that all of you now have to refer to me as a doctor!

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The number one question I’ve been asked after all of this is, “Do you feel relieved, like a weight has been lifted?”

The short answer is, no. I feel like the main reason people ask me this is because they are projecting their fear of public speaking on to me. If I’m being honest, I had like zero nerves going into this. Not only have I studied this stuff for SEVEN YEARS, but my business-guy of a dad has trained me from a very young age in the art of public speaking. It is a very rare occasion that I get nervous to speak in front of people. Sometimes the Q&A part afterwards will stress me a bit, but not giving the talk itself.
This is why on my grading rubric of my defense, my second highest scoring section was my oratory skills. It was second only to my problem solving abilities (proving my points from the B,B,&B blog that it just comes naturally). Unfortunately, there was one thing preventing me from getting a perfect score on my oratory skills…


Similar to these lovely blog posts, the way I speak 99% of the time is extremely casual. But in the world of science, word choice is everything. Science is huge on definitions, before you try to solve ANY problem, you have to very clearly define every single piece of the problem. You cannot assume anything; you must prove everything. So when a casual-type talker like me goes to present for a scientific audience this is one thing I am acutely aware of and kinda sorta struggle with.

For example: If I have a group of items that are all slightly different, in regular conversation I could say I have a “spectrum” of items. BUT in science, spectrum refers ONLY to visible light. So if I spoke about this group of items I had, the scientists in the room would be confused about how my items had anything to do with visible light. A better term to use in this instance would be “range” or “array”.

So before my defense I practiced my talk for my boss and while listening he wrote a list of words I’m not allowed to say due to this sort of misconception. So for the next week I practiced my talk over and over trying to replace every instance of those words. Then came my defense and about 2 or 3 times I came across one of those words and I felt like I was playing the game Taboo!
In my head: “uhh… uhh.. I can’t say that word, oh but I want to describe it this way, so I need to say something like this, but I can’t say that word either… ummm… “ and then finally got to an acceptable word and moved on with my talk. Those stupid little lapses kept me from my perfect score on oratory skills.

But that’s okay. In my talk I used the proper words, and I now have a better appreciation for why word choice is important.

And word choice isn’t just important in science. Truthfully we should all be more accurate with our words, but I know slang will keep us from ever getting there. Like seriously, talking about a warm beverage has nothing to do with gossiping.

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When we talk about religion, we must pay attention to our word choice too. Part of why there are so many different denominations of the Christian Church is because of word choice. First you’ll have one person interpret it differently, then it’s translated, then it’s taken out of context, and before you know it… BOOM! You’ve got a schism on your hand.

One of the biggest debates among Christians surrounds the “Bread of Life Discourse.” (John 6:22-70) In this section Jesus commands that we should eat His Flesh and drink His Blood, and Catholics take this literally to mean during every single mass. Protestants believe that He is using this as a metaphor. The words of this one chapter in one book of the Bible are so fundamental to Christian teachings; Jesus’ word choice is extremely important.

Now at one point during the questioning section at my defense, the professors realized I used the wrong word and asked me a few suggestive questions to get me to realize it and correct myself. I did. I meant “free energy” not “total energy.” I’m thankful they gave me the opportunity to correct it.

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So why doesn’t Jesus “correct himself" when his disciples give Him the chance?

Jesus repeats this teaching three times, and it is not until the third time that His disciples realize He is speaking literally and respond, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (John 6:52) Once they start to protest, he doesn’t correct himself, like I did, because He knows He is speaking the truth. Instead, he doubles down! At this point He speaks in even more graphic language:

Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever.” (John 6:53-58)

I knew that my word choice was important and I was only speaking to three professors and 20 close friends/family. Jesus was speaking to his disciples, but as God, He knew He was speaking to the world for future generations. He knew better than to make a mistake like I did. He knew the weight of every word he spoke.

So when his followers told Him that His teachings were hard, he politely agreed then watched them leave. He didn’t change His words because He knew they were the correct words. Knowing this, thinking about how He stood strong, reiterating the same thing, does this change our view of Communion? Does it change our view of the Body and Blood of Christ? When we go to mass, do we fully enter in, knowing that this is the truth? Or do we act like the disciples and refuse to believe because we think it is too hard?

- Dr. Dani