If I become unhinged it’s the Boston Globe’s fault

Boston: a pleasant and historical city

Boston: a pleasant and historical city

As a follow up to my post on how we’ve replaced problems with issues, someone pointed out this article from the Boston Globe’s The Word column – a sort of Talk Normal with education that people pay to read on Sundays – in which Jan Freeman dismisses a complaint from Mr G. B. that people are using the word issue more often than before.

She says:

“Mr. B. is a victim of the Frequency Illusion, to use the term coined by linguist Arnold Zwicky. He’s listening for issues, so he hears the word often, and imagines that it’s everywhere. In fact, in the specific usage he objects to – having issues instead of having problems – the problems version is still way, way ahead of issues.” Her evidence: she did a Google search for each term. On this basis she dismisses the idea that we might be uncomfortable describing problems honestly.

You’re wrong, Jan Freeman! I know they don’t pay much for columns these days, but an analysis that took more than 30 seconds on a search engine would have showed this is probably not a Zwickian illusion at all. Which makes her snobby putdown that “Mr. B.’s analysis is more puzzling than his failure to check the facts,” doubly unfortunate.

Her conclusion: “…issues aren’t always problems; they are also anxieties, conflicts, and disagreements. And if the word is meant to make those conflicts sound less dire, isn’t that a good thing? After all, anyone who’d rather have problems than issues is welcome to them.”

On the first point, I agree. There are lots of things that really are issues. On the second, absolutely not. I’d rather have been an astronaut than a journalist but, if I started turning up for interviews in a space suit, people might point out that I wasn’t facing up to the reality of my situation. It’s the same thing: when we can’t utter the word “problem” at work, we’re living a fantasy.

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