semantic stretch

The dangers of the semantic stretch

By PlamenB | PlamenB | 11 Apr 2021

Some years go I came across the term “semantic stretch” while reading a book called “Made to stick” by the Heath brothers.

In short the idea is that at some point a term (any term) becomes so overused that it no longer has the strong meaning it used to have before. I have noticed this with phrases like “very cool” which has become too common and was then replaced by “super cool” (then by ultra cool an so on).

The example in the book sounds a little more credible than mine – the authors have researched the use of the words “unusual” and “unique” in American newspapers over 20 years and they established that “unique” has gained a huge popularity while “unusual” was in decline. The Heath brothers also point out that since unique things are also unusual things (subset) the trend is unlikely to be because of increased number of unique things because that will also increase the number of unusual things.

stretch word

And thus this appear to be our thing as humans. We take words and phrases, we overuse them and then we invent or choose other words to make us sound different, and we eventually do the same with these other words or phrases.

Here’s another common example of semantic stretch - we often use the words complex and complicated as synonyms , however they really are not. Complicated is a measure of hod difficult is something to understand (e.g. easy to difficult) while complex is a measure of how ordered something is (e.g. chaotic to perfect order). As you can see these are very different meaning. And yet somehow we’ve managed to use them as if they are synonyms. 🤯

Therefore, we should always give consideration to what words we use an what the terms actually mean. Language is our way of communicating. It can already be misleading due to our different lenses (our ways to see the world). The least we can do is to be mindful and carefully choose what words we use and under what circumstances.

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