Terms matter. We all know that –but that knowledge is stored behind our brains. When it comes to day-to-day communication we quite often choose to not use that knowledge.
I was recently reminded of this when my doctor gave me a prescription of antibiotics. At the end of the consultation he urged me to finish the course because otherwise I would help strengthen [sic] the bacteria and aid in the evolution of new species of drug resistant bacteria.
Now, doctors are supposed to be professionals. They study basic genetics in medical school (unless they specialize in genetics –in which case they study advanced genetics) and hence they shouldn’t go about making such statements. Drugs do not make bacteria stronger –they kill them or at least try to. What he instead should be saying, given his academic background, is that if I don’t finish the course I would aid in the “selection” of drug resistant bacteria. Now that makes more sense and is the right thing to say as well.
Going on, what do you say when you see a car crashed on a highway? I have seen police in many countries labelling it as an accident. The [London] Metropolitan Police Service is to be admired here because they recommend that officers on duty call such events a “collision” until investigation is complete and the cause of the crash determined. Why do they insist so? Because an accident implies that the crash happened because of some unfortunate random error –example a crane collapsed on the car or suddenly one of the tires got punctured. But by labelling it a “collision” they mean that they have not ruled out the possibility of a forced error (someone drugging the driver; shooting the driver; someone intentionally disabling the steering wheel; drunken driving etc.).
There are countless such examples of bad terms that come out of us naturally (mostly due to a habit or because we just happen to copy others around us). My point is not to enlist all such errors here but to share with you the thought that most of the times such errors seem harmless but in the minds of those who do not specialize in the field they help plant wrong notions and hence can be dangerous. If all of us avoid using wrong terms in our fields of specialization then the world would be a slightly better place.