Semantics. Does the actual meaning of a word matter?

definition: the meaning or relationship of meanings of a sign or set of signs especially : connotative meaning*.

That’s the definition. Well, it’s the definition of General semantics.

There is literally not one day that goes by where someone isn’t challenging me that my arguments against the application of certain definitions or concepts are (actually) a matter of semantics. As George Carlin said, I agree that we must stick to the “language we’ve all agreed to,” in our daily lives and in business. To this day, I have to take a minute to think through my purchase when I’m looking at a jar of pitted olives. As Carlin noted in his book, Complaints and Grievances, if they are pitted…then they should have pits! I don’t right off recall the last time I was at a BBQ and someone asked me if I wanted seeded watermelon.

I also hear people say, “well, that’s not how the word is typically applied.” I’m sorry but how does that make me wrong? If I say “green” but it is interpreted as “yellow” and then I’m upset because my house was painted the wrong color – with the excuse being that this isn’t how the word “green” is typically applied – why am I wrong? Language matters – especially in business.

In my experience, people apply a label of semantics to anything about which they don’t want to think critically. But what do I mean by this? If someone tells you the difference between two ideas is a matter of semantics that’s fine…but why does this dismiss its relevance? “Semantics is the study of the meaning of words. Many words have very similar meanings and it is important to be able to distinguish subtle differences between them. For example, ‘anger’ and ‘rage’ are similar in meaning (synonyms) but ‘rage’ implies a stronger human reaction to a situation than ‘anger.’”**

Where this label of semantics arguably bothers me the most pertains to the role awareness plays in sales and marketing initiatives. As my hero, Gerry Tabio has stated, if you want people to be aware of you, light a building on fire. Awareness is not the first step in any process and it literally can’t be. Awareness is the result of a first step. It is also unquantifiable.

If we consider traditional, printed newspapers, let’s think about how engagement was measured. An auditing bureau, called AAC (formally ABC) would audit sales and the return of masthead’s back to the publisher, where the net difference would be formally audited and reported on, as actual sales to ad agencies and direct buyers of advertising. Does this mean that there was any way to quantify how many people saw an ad on page 4 on a given day? Of course not. Instead, it was through direct response that success was (or at least, should have) been measured. It didn’t matter how many people were aware of an ad in print and it doesn’t matter, in digital. If it can’t be quantified – meaning it can’t directly be tied to how it impacts revenue, it is irrelevant.

If a person buys or even just inquires about your product, rest assured, they are aware of it. But it isn’t a matter of semantics, either way. Investing time, energy, money, and thought into an awareness stage leads to pure loss. It is not a matter of semantics to state that a person engages with a brand. Being engaged and being aware are not synonymous and their difference is not even close to being a matter of semantics.

Thanks for reading!