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Can I use ‘technology’ to describe a new lipstick colour?

Illustration: John Shakespeare

Illustration: John Shakespeare Credit:

Answer:

I’m going to take a gamble here. I’m going to talk about prescriptivism versus descriptivism despite not being a linguist and understanding very well that these are complex terms with a long history of study and debate behind them.

In the study of language, some talk about prescriptivists and descriptivists as warring parties, or as the isms as two distinct ways of approaching things such as grammar and meaning. But you can also look at them as graded segments on a spectrum. At one end there are people who love rules and believe that there is a “correct” way of writing or saying almost anything. At the other end are those who prefer to observe language with almost complete detachment and who feel anything goes.

These are deliberately exaggerated positions, of course, and in the middle is where the fun stuff happens and where I think we can discuss your question.

You’re right: the word’s meaning has been stretched and loosened over the past few decades. And for someone who isn’t at the “anything goes” end of the language gamut, some uses of the word might now seem peculiar. They do to me.

I can also see how this slackness would be annoying, although I think the word I’d use is “unnecessary”. That might make me sound like a full-on prescriptivist, but I’m not saying people must not use “technology” to refer to a new scent in a dishwashing liquid; I’m asking why do they need to?

This is a column about work, and I don’t expect my copywriting comrades to forego their professional duty, shrug and go with “used to smell like fake pine. Now it has a generic citrus pong”. I do, however, think that “technology” seems misapplied. And that’s because there are so many other words available and applicable in your example.

Using “technology” in this way is not objectively wrong. In the worst instances, though, it treats readers as saps because, as you say, it asks them to equate a barely noteworthy change with great advances arriving out of scientific or industrial endeavours.

It’s true, of course, that the word “technology” hasn’t always been associated with applying scientific knowledge. About 400 years ago, tekhnologia, a Greek word, referred to art and craft. Only after the industrial revolution did it start to get its more mechanical hue and, naturally, the digital connotation didn’t come until much later again.

Words and their meaning change. It’s just how language works. What we may be witnessing is the beginning of another shift in the meaning of “technology”. Maybe in 400 years from now, it will only be used to describe piddling changes to household products. At the moment, though, it seems as if a useful word that was once put to use reasonably carefully is now being sprayed about the place willy-nilly. And I think we’re allowed to be a little bit frustrated by that.

Got a word at work that irritates you? Or just an office problem you need some help with? Send a question to Work Therapy: jonathan@theinkbureau.com.au

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