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What's in a name?

August 1, 2008
by Richard L. Peck, Editor-in-Chief
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Shakespeare's famous question implied that a name was incidental to the essence of something—“a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” But Gertrude Stein begged to differ: “a rose is a rose is a rose.” By naming something, you both identified it and expressed its unique essence.

These clashing concepts popped into my mind recently when I received a note from Anthony J. Mullen, partner in the financial investment firm Royal Star Partners and more famously known as one of the cofounders of the National Investment Center for the Seniors Housing & Care Industry, or NIC. Tony (whose complete note can be found as a blog on our http://www.ltlmagazine.com Web site, expressing his views, not NIC's) stated that we who talk about and write about long-term care should watch, and improve, our language. He noted that “admitting” a “patient” to a “facility,” for example, can have a damaging connotation when, in long-term care, we're essentially talking about people arriving at their new homes. He thought “clients” might be a less draconian way of alluding to “patients,” and “facilities” ought to be replaced by “communities.” Raising the bar of the long-term care lexicon would be an important step toward creating its better future, Tony said.

I hesitate to quarrel with this, for two reasons: (1) I'm a word guy, and like to believe that words, and our choices of them, do have a profound impact, and (2) Tony is an exceedingly bright person and acknowledged leader in long-term care. I'd think twice or four times before taking issue with anything he says.

But, in this case, I'm afraid I do. Basically, I think changing the language just might be putting the cart before the horse. While there is most certainly an alternative language developing in long-term care—witness the senior care “communities” that are popping up and growing all around us—expecting words to carry all the freight can invite “political correctness” if the words carry no genuine meaning. I submit that we have to change our thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors before our language describing them has any meaning for change. Imposing new words on the status quo is a bit like putting clean clothes on an unwashed body—it just doesn't quite get the job done.

But getting back to that “rose” (and apparently none too soon): When we name something, let's make sure that the name expresses the essence of that something as we know it. Let's make sure that the language expresses us, in short, and not simply our good intentions. A rose is a rose; it can be no other.

So, which of us is “right,” Tony or me? Please respond to the e-mail address below or to Tony's blog “Letter to the Editor” at http://www.ltlmagazine.com.





Richard L. Peck, Editor-in-Chief

To send your comments to the editors, e-mail peck0808@ltlmagazine.com.

Long-Term Living 2008 August;57(8):8

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