Thursday, 18 June 2009

What do words actually mean?

The problem with specialised English is that the same word can mean radically different things to different people. Or, more likely, there’s a subtle but important difference between the way a word is used by specialists in a particular field and by the rest of us. When that happens, it’s fair to ask: who’s right? Who has the right to say what a word really means, the experts or the majority?

I started thinking about this a few weeks ago when I read
this message on EULETA’s Yahoo Discussion Group (EULETA is the European Legal English Teachers’ Association, and I strongly recommend the Yahoo group to all teachers of Legal English.) The question was about bankruptcy. In British Legal English, technically only individuals and partnerships can be made bankrupt, while insolvent companies may go into administration or receivership (or administrative receivership …) before perhaps being liquidated. But it seems that many, probably most, speakers of British English, including many respectable journalists, don’t know or don’t care about such distinctions. See, for example, this story from the (British) Financial Times.

So who’s right, the lawyers or the journalists? And where does that leave us poor teachers? Well, you can read the rest of the debate on EULETA by clicking the “next” tab on the right hand side of
the page. But my advice is simply to teach that there’s disagreement and it’s up to your students to decide. Some people may see this as a cop-out: we should be the ones to provide definitive answers to our students. But other teachers, myself included, consider the discussion much more important than the answer.

Another example is merger. We all know that a merger is when two companies join together to become one, unlike a takeover, where one company gobbles up another company. Right? Wrong. Look at this extract from
West's Encyclopedia of American Law:
merger n. 1) in corporate law, the joining together of two corporations in which
one corporation transfers all of its assets to the other, which continues to
exist. In effect one corporation "swallows" the other, but the shareholders of
the swallowed company receive shares of the surviving corporation. A merger is
distinguished from a "consolidation" in which both companies join together to
create a new corporation.
So what I’d call a merger is actually a consolidation, and what I’d call a takeover is actually a merger. Who’s right? You decide.

I got into a similar mess a few years ago trying to argue with a professional linguist about phrasal verbs. In ELT we talk about phrasal verbs loosely to describe verbs with several parts, and there are several types (e.g. to wake up, to sort sth out, to look after sth, to put up with sth). To a linguist, however, look after is a prepositional verb, and put up with is a prepositional phrasal verb (or something like that). Who’s right, the millions (billions?) of teachers and learners of ELT, or the thousands of experts? Again, you decide.

Anyway, you can see my lesson plan based on the bankruptcy controversy

You can join the EULETA Discussion Group

The whole debate was actually sparked off by one of TransLegal’s LexMail Words of the Week, which you can see
here. Find out more about LexMail here.

So, what do you think? What do these words really mean? And what should we tell our students?


    I´m an English fun-natic with no many choices to practice anyway, and I found your blog an interesting way of...
    do you mind if...

  2. Hi

    Glad to have you on board. Any chance of finishing your ...