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Opinion: What we call things really ought to matter

Words mean something. Names mean something. What we call things means something.

That's a really quick summary of part of an interview I once had with a longtime literature professor at South Dakota State University. His name is Chuck Woodard, and he believes in being precise in the use of language.

I think of our conversation now and then when I read news stories or watch clips on television or in a variety of multimedia computer posts. What we call things impacts how we feel about those things, so it's essential to rational conversation for us to be precise in our terms, it seems to me.

These days I'm pondering the nearly universal use of the word "skyrocket" to mean just about anything that is going up. Property taxes skyrocket. Health-care costs skyrocket. The price of tuition at a state university skyrockets. So does the price of a gallon of milk or a loaf of bread. Just about anything that increases in cost anymore goes up at a pace once reserved to describe the rate of movement of, well, a skyrocket, maybe an Apollo moon shot. Those things actually do skyrocket when they move.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not downplaying the rate of inflation, or the fact that health-care costs do seem to be climbing at a steady rate quite a bit more rapid than the general pace of economic growth. If the price of a gallon of gasoline jumps a dime, though, is that a skyrocketing rate of increase? Is a nickel a gallon a skyrocketing increase?

I suppose it depends on whether you have the extra dime a gallon in your pocket or not. I was without steady work for five or six months, and, as the old joke goes, I was in a depression, even if other people with jobs were feeling a recession. That's fine for a quick gag, but when economists talk about recession and depression, they have some pretty specific ways to measure either or both. From my casual observation, they try to be pretty precise when they use either term.

I can recall back in the 1980s when everything a Riggs High School sports team did, everything the band or chorus or any other activity did, was considered "awesome." Now, awesome is a fine word. I grew up believing that it meant something like "wonder," or "reverence" or "amazement." These days, I gather, it can mean anything from those pretty significant sensations to something as simple as "cool," or "far out," as John Denver used to say.

The birth of a child is awesome. An episode of "Beavis and Butthead?" Not so much, but I once heard that goofy TV program described as such.

What happens when everything is awesome is that nothing is awesome. There's no differentiation between the truly amazing and the run-of-the-mill "kind of cool." When we compress the distance between kind of cool and truly amazing with the use of a single word, we limit our expression of what we're seeing and experiencing.

Now, skyrocket is a fine word, too. Used sparingly, it can describe significant economic or financial changes. It can also be a scare word. Used indiscriminately, skyrocket makes everything the same. A double-digit increase in the price of a Baby Ruth candy bar surely can't be as significant as a double-digit increase in the cost of healthcare insurance or of a medical procedure. If each is skyrocketing, though, how do we know one is a more important occurrence than the others?

What we call things ought to matter.

Terry Woster's column appears Wednesdays and Saturdays in The Daily Republic.