The right word matters more than ever.

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Most of the communicators we know are a lot like us when it comes to writing: editing and rewriting and tweaking every sentence, every phrase, every word.

Because words count. The right ones can open people to new ideas and spur them to action; the wrong ones can close minds, weaken support and harden opposition. That’s why we’re so diligent about testing language in the research phase of a campaign. We want to know which words convey both the literal meaning and the persuasive emotion we want them to deliver. It’s why we prepare messages for communicators, and help members and supporters advocate your position as effectively as possible.

Words matter. And it’s kind of jaw-dropping when a dictionary seems to dismiss their importance.

Not just any dictionary, either: the Oxford English Dictionary.

Last week, anthropologist Michael Oman-Reagan tweeted about the OED’s startling example sentence for the word “rabid”:

He got the standard flood of replies from Twitter’s resident swarm of (actually rabid) misogynists. But he also got a reply from Oxford Dictionaries’ Twitter account.

That first reply drew a barrage of well-founded criticism. Oxford Dictionaries eventually apologized for the tone, and acknowledged the example is a bad one: “In more troubling cases, a poorly chosen example sentence might inadvertently repeat factually incorrect, prejudiced, or offensive statements from the source. […] the controversial and impolitic nature of the example distracted from the dictionary’s aim of describing and clarifying meaning.”

It was flippant and disrespectful, and compounded the original mistake that Dr. Oman-Reagan was (very respectfully) pointing out.

But their second tweet was a mistake, too.

Hiding behind “it’s just an example” doesn’t cut it. When you’re speaking for an institution dedicated to the power of language, whose slogan is literally “Language matters,” you can’t pretend that the words you choose aren’t important. It’s not that different from publishers who extoll the vital mission and impact of their newspapers, and then wave off any suggestion their editorial endorsements could influence voters.

Words matter. Take the time to choose the right ones.

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