May 31st, 2012 .

A cushion and pillow are not the same

Max Morden

Recently we were in a furniture store shopping for a new couch. We asked a salesclerk what we thought was a standard question: “Can you cover the cushions in a different fabric from the couch?”

The clerk looked a little nonplussed, and asked if he could check. After what seemed a longish wait, he came back with his manager. “Of course you can have the cushions in a different fabric,” she said, “but you mean pillows, don’t you?”

Of course she was right. We felt a little foolish, but also surprised that such confusion could arise over the words “cushion” and “pillow” in a furniture store. In the end we bought a couch (with different coloured pillows), but the experience was a good reminder that we have to think carefully about the words we use. Do they mean the same thing to others as they do to us?

Recently I came across what I thought was an unfortunate choice of words. A leadership program described one of the outcomes for participants as “actionable decision-making.” What the writer meant to convey, I think, was the idea of leadership in action. Unfortunately, “actionable decision-making” means making decisions that give rise to lawsuits.

When you use words, try to choose ones that are familiar and clear. There are so many great words, and they can be adapted to just about anything you want to say. As Winston Churchill once said, “Broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words best of all.”

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