Search this site
Other stuff

All banner artwork by Brady Johnson, college student and (semi-) starving artist.

My latest books:


        Available now

       Available Now

Available now 

My book Machines are the easy part; people are the hard part is now available as a free download at Lulu.

 The Blue Skunk Page on Facebook


EdTech Update




« BFTP: I Will (as a Teacher) | Main | Wikipedia turns 10: Are we banning or boosting? »

When words lose meaning

The symbol is NOT the thing symbolized; the word is NOT the thing; the map is NOT the territory it stands for. S.I. Hayakawa, Language in Thought and Action. (I gotta re-read this book!)


My friend and fellow Minnesotan, Carl Anderson, is writing a series of blog posts about some educational terms that seem to have lost their way. This is terminology that started out well, became over-used, and now seems to be rather meaningless.

So far, Carl's written about:

and my favorite

Carl, here are a few more I hope you tackle:

  • Constructivist
  • Data-driven
  • Leadership
  • _________ literacy
  • 21st Century skills

Go, Carl, go!

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments (9)

Speaking as a former science teacher, this is exactly why history is so entertaining! The language symbols change very quickly, it's super dynamic, but human nature and their essential motivators stay very much the same. I've been doing this work long enough to see it happen to education language, and from one dissertation to the next, the lexicon gets reinvented. We keep the babies, but the bathwater gets a regular and necessary change. Heck, even the F-bomb is losing it's power after centuries of very creative use. Time to move on...

Cheers, mate!

January 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBill Storm

I'll offer another that I think has been twisted beyond recognition lately: achievement. Used to be that achievement meant you actually....achieved something.

January 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSteve Johnson

If the word is not the thing, how do you evaluate the sentence "Dragons are green?"

January 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterStephen Downes

Words are not the thing but they do have immense power. As my great uncle would often remind us, we should "use the best word for the meaning/understanding you desire your listener to achieve." That great uncle was a close friend of S.I Hayakawa and actually consulted on the book "Language in Thought and Action." My uncle was also the one who put the free in sugarfree gum. As a part of a new advertising campaign several years ago he convinced the Wriggly company that no one wants to buy less as in sugarless gum.

We as educational consumers must be aware of what we are buying just as in the public marketplace. Words can lead or mislead, inform or misinform. It is up to us as educators, consumers and even voters to know what we are buying or buying into. Too often we let that which is promoted the most effectively sway our opinions and actions. Let the buyer beware!

January 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPati Daisy

Hi Bill,

I am surprised by what language passes for "family' acceptable in today's TV shows. But it makes me really feel like a geezer when I admit this.



Hope Carl is reading the comments. I'd agree with you.


Hi Stephen,

You lost me. Seems I used to remember some grammatical language that would separate the nominative from the descriptive - or something. (I flunked generative transformational grammar, I'm afraid!)

The quote comes from Language in Thought in Action, a popularization of Korzybski's work in General Semantics. One of the more memorable and influential classes I had as a undergrad back in the 70s used this as the text. If you haven't read it, I think you'd get a kick out of it.

Please keep your damn cold weather in Canada for a bit!


Wonderful comment and story, Pati. Thanks for adding to the discussion.


January 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

Thanks for the nod Doug, and thank you everyone for your feedback.

I would like to respond to Stephen's question with a story. I attended Concordia College in Moorhead, MN. Concordia students are referred to as Cobbers (not sure that really qualifies as a mascot or not). Just a few blocks away from campus is Moorhead State, whose mascot is the dragon. Therefore, MSU students are referred to as Dragons. Cobbers and Dragons are rivals and each year their football teams play an annual game to kick off the year. When the Cobbers win you might say that "Dragons are green" with envy. You might also use the term to refer to any attempts the school makes to be more Eco-friendly.

January 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCarl Anderson

Hi Carl,

Hope you get a few more subscribers as a result of the post. You do good work.


January 27, 2011 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson


Certainly words are the thing in the *sentence* "Dragons are green."

How about the *idea* "dragons are green?"

Of course, that would be just an opening statement. :)

I don't really have a dog in this fight, as far as educational terminology goes, and I would probably agree with the assertion that language is the primary way in which we evaluate ideas. (I might be less inclined to though, after a concert or a trip to the art museum. ;)


February 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterClint Brooks

HI Clint,

Stephen is over my head! I'll let you and him battle it out.


February 8, 2011 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>