Here are some words that bug me

Do you know what net metering means?

EVEN IF YOU are not a student of Shakespeare, you’ve probably heard this one: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose. By any other name would smell as sweet.” 

That’s nice for Romeo. But in communications in today’s world, even if you’re not a student of mass marketing, there are some words that don’t smell as sweet as others.

The examples that are a rose’s thorn in my side range from some well-meaning soul’s ill-fated decision that caught on, to clear corporate spin that some PR firm concocted. Let’s try and go in order:

EPR: This is a term used by people, active in the reduce/reuse/recycle policy world, who want companies to take more responsibility for the waste that results from products they make. It stands for Extended Producer Responsibility, and it’s an important policy. But almost no one in the general public knows what it means, and “extended” is wildly generous, given how little waste companies currently reclaim. Can we simply call it “producer responsibility?”

ANWR (pronounced Ann-Wahr) is shorthand for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. ANWR is a term likely coined by advocates so busy trying to preserve the refuge that they didn’t have time to use all the requisite syllables. But again, no one knows what it stands for — while most everyone surely would support the effort. How about just “Arctic Refuge”?

Net Metering is a billing mechanism that credits solar energy system owners for the electricity they add to the grid. I’m guessing someone deep in energy policy came up with the term, which describes this: If a homeowner has solar panels on their roof, it may generate more electricity than the home uses during daylight hours. Customers are then only billed for their “net” energy use. I haven’t done the survey but I bet if you walked down the street and asked 100 people, 99 of them would not know what ‘net metering’ means. It’s a great system, though. How about we call it “Solar Savings”?

On to the more devious:

Waste to Energy: Back to the reduce/reuse/recycle world. The garbage industry likes to re-brand incineration as “waste to energy.” But burning garbage to make energy is a waste of energy, and a very dirty waste at that. We need less garbage, not more dirty energy.

Hey kids! Let’s talk about waste to energy!

Natural Gas:  In fact, it’s a fossil fuel; it’s unsustainable; we have to crack the earth open to get it; and it’s widely considered a threat to the planet. One theory is that the American Petroleum Institute pushed the descriptor “natural” as the efforts to replace it grew, as described in this piece. In any case, plenty of things are “natural” — like arsenic and tobacco, for example — that we don’t want in our everyday lives.

Gaming: How about the word “gaming?” Our children play games. I think it’s fair to say that games are considered to be, well, fun and games. At a casino, we’re gambling, and by definition, taking risks. The author of this article postulates that the first executive director of the powerful lobbying group, the American Gaming Association, Frank Fahrenkopf, worked hard to frame gambling as entertainment. Considering that the National Council on Problem Gambling estimates that between 3 and 4 percent of US adults are identified as “problem gamblers” — meeting criteria for a “gambling disorder” or problem gambling, one might quibble with just how entertaining that is.

Meet the Author

Janet S Domenitz

Executive director, Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group
As our state, the country, and the world try to “build back better,” it’s crucial that we call things as we see them, so we can accurately identify solutions.

Of course, choosing the right word or phrase matters, but it’s only part of the challenge. To persuade people, we still need fact-based arguments and a narrative that connects with people’s experience and moves them. In the meantime, whether it’s an innocent fall into obfuscatory acronyms or the Madison Avenue spinmeisters trying to pull the proverbial wool over our eyes, we need words and phrases that shine a clear light for all of us to create a path forward together.

Janet Domenitz is the executive director of the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, or MassPIRG.