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Word Imperfect

Ronnie Gunn | 19 Mar, 2021 | Return|

Recent reports in the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror have highlighted the plight of a Black Country community history group that faced a Facebook ban for using the term "faggots" which the social network described as "homophobic."

Words which have two meanings

However the 14,000 member group was using the word to describe meat balls made from offal. The Cambridge Dictionary describes the ingredients of the dish as "a ball of meat mixed with bread and herbs, fried or cooked in sauce." Incidentally, according to the Dictionary, faggots could also mean "sticks of wood, tied together and used as fuel for a fire."

Faggots and peas is a well-known traditional West Midlands delicacy and so it is hard to see, in that context, that the term could be seen as offensive. It is also interesting to note that Facebook's dutiful algorithms did not discover the recipe for faggots and peas on the BBC Good Food website.

Automated thinking

Social networks have now had to accept that they have a publishing role and are expected to remove unacceptable content from their platforms. Yet traditionally editorial decision making has come hand in hand with editorial discretion.

Automated knee-jerk responses do them no favours and there are many words that can be perfectly innocent in one context and offensive in another. Using Facebook's approach could, by a crazy logic, lead to banning dog breeders from using the term "bitch" in their social media accounts.

On the other hand, there is a useful lesson to be gained from this, which is that words and expressions need to be chosen carefully to suit the audiences that are being communicated with. While "faggots" is acceptable to Black Country locals as an ingredient of a traditional regional dish, any West Midlands meat processing business wishing to market the product to the USA would do well to choose different words to describe it!

Underpinning meanings

Misused words can lead to misunderstandings as well as potentially causing offence, which can make a foreign language interpreter's task a potential nightmare. 

The Lingualinx blog comes up with a range of intriguing anecdotes, including:

"A while back, presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton gave Sergey Lavrov, Russian Foreign Minister, a gift representing a “resetting” of the relationship between the U.S. and Russia. But instead of saying “reset” in Russian as was intended, the translation on the gift said “overcharge” in Russian. Needless to say, it was a bit embarrassing for the U.S. government."

However, there are numerous circumstances where problems can arise between those using the same language and a lazy or ill-considered use of words can cause damage. Businesses therefore have to be aware of how their messages will be received by both the public at large and by the target audiences they wish to engage with.

Context is key and any term that is likely to be ambiguous or misunderstood needs to be ring-fenced with content, including visuals when appropriate, to support the meaning intended to be conveyed.

Our team of content writers at BBI Brandboost have had many years of experience in marketing and communications across a variety of industry sectors, so please contact us at any time your business feels the need to get its messages out loud and clear!

About the Author

Ronnie Gunn

Ronnie Gunn

As Head of Communications, Ronnie focuses on content writing, PR and media relations. Throughout a long journalistic and business career, he has developed an exceptional talent for spotting a good story and knowing how to tell it. His varied experience allows him to understand complex technical subjects like precision engineering and appreciate the key selling points of consumer markets such as travel.

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