August 26, 2014 - Comments Off on The complexity of saying the same thing, differently

The complexity of saying the same thing, differently

The word has gone. A competitor has used it to good effect, and it’s now our task, as the creative agency, to come up with a new and more effective word for our client. Obviously, it needs to be different, and perform a similar function, but also true. This is probably one of the trickiest tasks facing a copywriter, because as all copywriters will know, part of the beauty that we so admire about the English language is that there are no true synonyms.

At least that’s the theory. The word synonym comes from Ancient Greek (syn = with, onoma = name) and is ‘a word or phrase that means exactly or nearly the same as another word or phrase in the same language’. English is rich in synonymy, given how the language has developed over the past 2,000 years through the Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Viking and Norman invasions, who each brought with them new words for things previous inhabitants had already named (and plenty more in each case).

So once upon a time we just had smell; but after the Norman invasion in 1066 the French gave us odour, so people, animals and objects could have a smell or an odour to them. The words aren’t completely interchangeable, of course, because odour can’t work as a verb, whereas smell can.

The problem

A large part of our job as a creative agency is to be descriptive in how we write about our clients’ products and services, to make them stand out. In some cases, they’re products and services that already exist elsewhere, so it’s even more important to think of ways to make them rise above the rest.

So, for example, we may be told that a product is ‘innovative’. But we can’t use that word because the competitor uses ‘innovation’ in their product’s strapline. There’s no escaping the fact that the product is innovative, though, so we need to find another way of saying it.

How context and experience forms our attitudes towards words

This is where it can get tricky. In his book Words, Words, Words, author David Crystal compares youngster and youth – two words meaning ‘young person’ that, at first, seem perfectly interchangeable. But Crystal says there are “nuances associated with the one which we do not find with the other” and gives two examples:

There are some youngsters standing outside the house.
There are some youths standing outside the house.

“Which group would worry you?” he asks.

It’s a problem that faces those who pay particular attention to every word, morpheme and letter they write. And it’s everywhere – take the word problem for example. Can it be said in a different way?

I have a problem
I have a conundrum
I have a dilemma

Do these all mean the same thing? Or do they mean something broadly similar but individually different? A conundrum is more of a puzzle or an enigma; a bit of a mystery. A dilemma, on the other hand, is where you know your options and potential results but simply don’t know which route to go down. It’s more of a crisis.

The importance of understanding the meaning of the words you use

And so we go back to our innovation problem (or is it a conundrum, or dilemma?). Our product really is innovative. My first point of call would be a dictionary, so I can understand what innovation truly means.

Innovate (verb intrans): to make changes by introducing something new, e.g. new practices or ideas.

This product, then, is bringing new ideas that are changing (or going to change) the product, service or industry in which it sits. Personally, I’d focus on the word ‘change’. This is the most important component, because if this new product isn’t really changing people’s lives, lifestyles or the way they perform tasks, then it’s not really innovative.

But let’s say it is. What are our alternatives; our synonyms? A quick look in a thesaurus gives us contemporary, ingenious, inventive, new, fashionable, stylish, advanced, modern, avant-garde, cutting edge and state-of-the-art. That last one sounds good. But does state-of-the-art really mean the same as innovative?

State-of-the-art (adj): very modern and using the most recent ideas and methods.

Let’s take a razor as an example. There are two in the shop, side by side. One describes itself as ‘innovative’ while the other claims it’s ‘state-of-the-art’. Which would you choose?

The value of knowing your audience and the words they use

This is open to interpretation and down to personal preference. And that’s where knowing your audience – and carrying out some simple A/B testing – really pays off. When you understand the type of language they hear, see and use on a daily basis, you’ll have a better idea of what words will appeal to them.

Two seemingly similar words aren’t so similar when you consider the context they appear in. So when it comes to language, it’s worth going that bit deeper – because the difference between success and failure could come down to one word.