What’s in a word?

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” says Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare, the master wordsmith, the artist who can persuade, influence and toy with our emotions through his use of words, could hardly have chosen a better way to illustrate the love-struck youngster’s naivety.

Because names, and words, do matter, a lot, as Juliet finds out to her cost.

They matter because of the subtle influence they have over our minds. Our choice of words – as writers, politicians and rabble rousers know – can repel, incite or simply bore us.


What’s the difference between these two questions that you might hear in your local shop: “Do you have any bread?” and “Do you have some bread?” (Try saying the two sentences out loud to test them.) That choice of ‘some’ or ‘any’ reflects the questioner’s expectation. ‘Some’ means we think the answer will be positive, whereas with ‘any’ we are less sure.

That sort of choice of language usually accurately reflects what we think and the outcome we expect. But language can also betray our thinking in ways we don’t necessarily want to reveal. Who is the more internally motivated, the person who says “I must finish this on time” or the person who says “I have to finish this on time”? The former (using ‘must’) is probably more internally motivated, while the latter (‘have to’) is probably driven by an external rule or law. (Think of when you might use these phrases yourself.) The key thing is this: when they say those words, the speakers probably aren’t aware what they are revealing about themselves.

This subtlety of language matters a lot to anyone who seeks to influence the rest of their organisation in their work in learning and development. Our choice of vocabulary – in particular our use of any jargon – can be the equivalent of lexical body odour, repelling others without our being aware of the impact we’re having.


Three words or phrases, often repeated in the world of L&D, probably have this effect. We use them constantly, and yet I would argue there’s a case for never using them again – certainly when dealing with those from outside the learning profession. The first of these is the phrase ‘deliver learning’.

This is just wrong.

Nobody delivers learning. Learning is something that happens inside the mind of an individual. It simply cannot be delivered. But worse is the subconscious message the phrase reveals.

‘Deliver learning’ implies something that anyone who considers themselves a learning professional should regard as dangerous.

This dangerous message has two parts. The first is that ‘learning’ can be ‘delivered’ at all – in other words that ‘learning’ is equivalent to the course or to materials which can be used for learning. For an L&D professional, this should be anathema. After all, we know that most learning takes place without any specially created materials at all, through conversation, through active engagement by individuals with the world. If we work in L&D surely any materials we create should be part of a learning process that we help facilitate.

But of course, that is all we can do: facilitate learning. The actual learning takes place in the mind of the individual. The phrase ‘deliver learning’ removes that from the individual and puts all power into the material. Learning is not a pizza. It cannot be delivered ready for consumption. It is a process that involves individuals, their minds and the world, in which materials we create can play a part.

All of which leads us on to the second of our unholy trinity of words to be removed from our conversation


Accountants do not refer to their clients as ‘earners’, so why do we insist on calling the people we aim to help ‘learners’? It makes as much sense for a doctor to call his or her patients ‘breathers’. Yes, they are breathing, because they are human. And yes, they learn, too, for the same reason.

Again, though, this is more than a minor irritation. Unless it’s in a precise context (e.g. to distinguish ‘learners’ from ‘nonlearners’ in an experiment), the word ‘learner’ strips away too much from a person. It is often used to render him or her as a passive recipient of the learning that is delivered to them.

It also over-emphasizes the importance of learning. Usually for the individual concerned it is not their most important activity (although it may be our focus).

Usually it is a means to an end for the person involved, and not the word they would choose to label themselves with.

Instead of ‘learner’ how about: ‘person’, ‘employee’ or ‘individual’? If we used these words, not only would our meaning be clearer to those we speak to, it would also remind us that people are individuals with their own aims and goals and not passive recipients of the ‘learning’ we ‘deliver’ to them.


The term which I think does us the most disservice is one which I think has had a useful life, but is now past its best – at least outside our own area. We use it every day in our own field, but it still, after about 15 years, does not mean much to anyone else. The term: ‘e-learning’.

The problem here is that ‘e-learning’ doesn’t mean much outside of L&D. Technology is now part of such a wide range of learning that it’s difficult to know what would be excluded from the term. Is someone doing ‘e-learning’ if they look something up on Google? What if they use it only for performance support and don’t actually learn anything? Does that still count as ‘e-learning’? Things can get very messy very quickly.

Beyond that, and more important, is the legacy ‘e-learning’ brings with it.

The end of the last millennium was a great time for hype, and the term ‘e-learning’ was no exception. A heady mixture of supplier self-interest, executive focus on cost-cutting and the dot com boom led to a spike in hype followed by a very unpleasant crash and hangover.

In a way the boom times had one valuable effect – they pushed learning onto the organisational agenda as never before. Suddenly learning was being discussed at a senior level. The good news: non-learning specialists were interested in what we did. The bad news: most saw e-learning as a cost-cutting measure, because that’s how it was consistently presented to them.

The hangover from the party has lasted until today. There is no neutral outcome from the sort of hyperbole that surrounded the early days of e-learning. From the start there was push back, which only increased after the crash. This came partly from those resistant to technology and change – and partly from those who’d had one bad e-learning experience and didn’t want to repeat it. And this emotional load that the word carries is one big reason for avoiding it. In learning, the emotions are both catalyst and inhibitor. When something is as laden with confusion and negativity as ‘e-learning’ is in the wider world, it’s best avoided.

And the other bitter aftertaste of the hype is a lasting cynicism among management. Too many see e-learning as yesterday’s fad or the unpleasant place you go to do compliance training. Few see beyond to what it actually means or what it can achieve today.


Of course, we will keep using ‘e-learning’ within the L&D community because we have a fair idea of what it means. And that’s fair enough. Every field has jargon to be used internally but not on a wider field.

Juliet thought that it didn’t matter whether Romeo was called a Capulet or a Montague. Both families thought otherwise and the result was tragic. Fortunately things are not quite so grave for us. Still, we cannot escape the significance that other people give to words, even if we don’t share their interpretation, and ‘e-learning’ carries plenty of significance to those outside L&D, most of it negative.

At the same time, we cannot avoid what using certain words says about us, and should be careful how we use them. It’s time to promote ‘learners’ to their true position as individuals, and to stop ‘delivering learning’ to them. That relegates them to the position of passive consumers, and us to the role of pizza boy. We’re both worth more than that. Fortunately this doesn’t require the genius of William Shakespeare, just a keen interest in the impact of words and a desire to avoid unthinking clichés. For everyone’s sake, let’s take a fresh look at the language we use, and make sure that we are its master and not its slave.

Whats in a Word, ILTM 47 Jan 14

One response to “What’s in a word?

  1. Pingback: Using at all in a positive sentence that is not a conditional - English Vision

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s