Words Matter

When I taught high school English in Maryland a few year ago, I tried to explain to 9th and 10th graders that words have both denotation and connotation.  Every word has a dictionary meaning (denotation) and some words, what we would call synonyms, have the same or very similar dictionary definitions.  For example, a house and a home are both dwellings in which people reside.  This was fairly easy for the students to understand.  It was when I explained that words also have connotation – a feeling or idea produced by the word – that students had a more difficult time.  To illustrate this point, I would ask if they would rather go to their house or to their home?  On the surface, these two choices appear to be the same.  However, my answer is always that I would prefer to go to my home because that word conjures up images of my loved ones and is more welcoming and warm than the sterile and cold “house.”  I also tried a different example – would you rather be skinny or slender?  To me, the obvious choice was slender because skinny evokes images of skeletons.   My teenage female students, however, preferred the term skinny because to them, slender meant that they had some pounds to lose.  We may not have agreed on the example, but the concept that words matter was now something that they could relate to.

But this post isn’t a lesson in connotation and denotation.  This post is a follow up to last week’s post about professional development.  Sometime over the holidays I stumbled across an article that proved to be the inspiration for today’s post.* It talked about how one should not refer to professional development as professional development; instead, it should be called professional learning.  I remember the argument was that people objected to being “developed” or the implication that they needed “developing.”  They preferred the term learning because it gave them a better image of feeling that they were enhancing the skills they already had instead of making up for a deficit in their skills.

I’ve been taught about connotation and the importance of choosing your words carefully, but I never once considered the connotation that professional development has until I read this article.  It makes me wonder what other words we use that may be providing a negative connotation to our listeners.  Additionally, maybe CAPE should change our workshops that we label as professional development to professional learning.  What do you think?  Would you rather learn or be developed?

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*I thought I had bookmarked the article to use as a reference, but I cannot locate it now.   The closest I could come is this article Out with professional development, in with professional learning which is also the source for the picture.

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