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The Words We Use Have Meaning

The Words We Use Have Meaning

wordle2Last week I wrote about how words have power; about how they have both a direct and, more often, an indirect way of impacting our emotions, and how we see the world. I used the example of phrases we often use and the messages those phrases can send, either negative or positive. And it’s not just the words we say out loud but also the words of that little voice in our head.

It’s also fascinating to me how our understanding of a word’s meaning can vary from another’s understanding, thereby creating a different impact. The obvious examples are the use of slang words and words that have been intentionally used to create a different context. An example would be the modern, slang use of the word “killer” to mean very good, excellent, impressive; “cool”; “awesome” (On-line Slang Dictionary).

A number of years ago (I don’t know when or by whom) I heard and learned about the words “discussion” and “dialogue”. These are two words that we tend to use interchangeably — as if they mean the same thing. However, just as with today’s slang as demonstrated in the example above, as the English language has evolved, words that meant one thing long ago have been co-opted, connected and come to be understood in a different way. The reason the two words discussion and dialogue stand out for me is that their sound actually sends a subliminal message. The word discussion is rather harsh to my ear whereas dialogue is softer. Say them out loud — do you hear it? I’m not sure if it’s the hard “c” in “cuss” or the implication of the word “cuss” itself, or the similarity between “discussion” and the word “percussion” with the imagery of loud noises, banging and striking. The origin of the word discussion is Latin (disutere), which means “dashed to pieces”. It is made up of two Latin words– dis (a part) and quartere (to shake or strike). Similarly, the Latin for percussion means to shake forcibly. Dialogue, on the other hand, comes with a different sense and feel to it. The word comes to us from the Latin dialegthia and Greek dialogos, which means “converse with”. The two basic Latin words from which it comes from are dia (through) and legein (speak). Discussion then is more about arguing a point, pulling apart, whereas dialogue is about conversing in way that all points are heard and understood, hopefully leading to a consensus.words


The two words discussion and dialogue are common in our everyday conversation and often used interchangeably. However, ever since I learned of their roots and the subtle differences in their meaning, I find myself stopping to consider if I am using right word for the context. I am no language scholar, by any stretch of the imagination. But it makes me stop and wonder what other words I may be using that aren’t appropriate or right for a given situation?



John Whitehead, coaches’ individuals and organizations in becoming more effective by helping them improve their interpersonal communications, emotional intelligence and resiliency.

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