Wordly Wise?

Watch your language.

That’s what GM’s managers believed. When they settled with the US Government over their bungled ignition-switch recall, they released a lot of internal documents. One was a presentation made in 2008 that explained the recall process to engineers, including how to document faults and engineering issues.

Naturally, management wanted its technical people to be careful about what they said. A lot of the advice is common sense, like imagine how folks would react if they saw your comments in the paper the next morning, and to focus on facts and avoid speculation.

But they went on to list 69 words that should never be used in print—terms like “good” or “problem” or “safety.” It’s understandable that the legal department doesn’t want a careless technician to refer to a product as a powder-keg, but telling someone to replace the term “problem” with “issue” or to change “defective” to “does not perform to design” sounds Orwellian.

I work in a regulated industry; I understand that terminology can have legal implications. Cervantes said that words have meaning, and names have power. But when you have to tell your staff not to compare a car to a grenade, maybe your problem—er, issue—is more than just vocabulary.

Douglas R. Tengdin, CFA

Chief Investment Officer

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