The power of words: why we need to choose them wisely

Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.

Language is a strange one. We assume it brings us together, but sometimes it pushes us apart. It can make us feel connected but it can also reveal how different we are.

Lost in translation’ stories can often make us laugh. There are rich pickings from the world of advertising — global organisations selling their wares, but forgetting that words and meanings are not the same.

Here are some examples: Ford ran an ad campaign in Belgium offering a dead body with each of their cars. The message, “Every car has a high-quality body,” got lost along the way. Braniff Airlines promoted their new leather seats with the strapline, “Fly in leather,” but in Mexico it meant, “Fly naked.”

Swedish vacuum cleaner manufacturer Electrolux launched new products in the USA with “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux,” implying their products were useless. And HSBC bank had to spend $10 million re-branding their worldwide campaign, “Assume Nothing,” because in many countries it meant “Do Nothing.”

These and other translation errors may be funny, but misunderstandings can create devastation. Known as the ‘world’s most tragic translation,’ one small error in meaning changed the course of World War Two. After victory in Europe, the Allied Leaders gathered at the Potsdam Conference, demanding Japan’s unconditional surrender. But the Japanese Prime Minister Kataro Suzuki was in a terrible bind. Whilst his cabinet favoured surrender, the military wanted to fight on. Hounded by reporters he gave a rushed one-word answer — “Mokusatsu.”

The Allies translated this as “death by silence,” — not worthy of comment. However, they missed its other meaning. In the midst of a stressful conference Suzuki meant, “I don’t have a comment at this time.”

But the dye was cast. The allies felt insulted, unwilling to continue negotiations. So, to hasten the end of the war, they dropped an atomic bomb on the 6th August 1945. ‘Little Boy’ landed on Hiroshima at 08.15 and 140,000 innocents were killed. Then three days later ‘Fat Man was unleashed with devastation on Nagasaki. Another 74,000 people died.

Last week was the 75th anniversary of the first (and so far only) atomic bombs used in conflict. But smaller explosions go off every day. We live with a war of words on social media. It’s an arena full of hurt and pain, with words exploding all around. So prevalent are these micro conflicts that we hardly notice any more.

At the anniversary event in Hiroshima this week the bells tolled for the dead. As we reflect on these tragic events from long ago, we must ring our own bells in warning. Those with power or influence should note: it is your duty to choose wisely. For the nursery rhyme was wrong. Words can indeed break bones.

This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here.

Photo copyright of Charlotte Sheridan

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