Follow my lead. (image via mikemol)
Content Strategists have a lot of different backgrounds and skillsets, but many of us share an interest in word choice. We like to explore definitions, nuance, and etymology to make sure that we’ve chosen the best word to communicate precisely what we want to say. We have a thesaurus on speed-dial. We look to different industries and disciplines to see if we can steal words and repurpose them in a new context. We mine history and literature for words that may have fallen out of favor, but are primed to be brought back into the sun. Some of us will even make up a word if the situation calls for it.
Yesterday Kristina Halvorson posted this request on Twitter:
@halvorson NEED YOUR HELP. What’s a word that could mean “informational elements that exist to help people find, use, *and understand* the content”?
There was a flurry of suggestions as people jumped to respond to the challenge to find the perfect word to encompass this concept. At some point she clarified that she was trying to find a single term that encompassed both the copy you might see on a page, and information that was helping behind the scenes. Here are some of the suggestions (some more serious than others):
- Heteroglossia (@jodify)
- “Contextual elements in the content environment.” (@LauraCreekmore)
- Signage? Guideposts? (@eaton)
- Wayfinding (@mbloomstein, @rbcinnyc, and @mfraase)
- Interface (@kissane)
- Subterface (@scarequotes)
- bizgloss & partygloss (@inkblurt)
- Affordances (@mbloomstein)
- Helper, guide, pointer, clue, hint, accessory, or support content? (@ticjones)
- “Framing” material? Breadcrumbs? µContent? (@doriantaylor)
The inadequacies of these words led us to explore the meaning of the concept more deeply. Eventually the distributed discussion led several people (including Halvorson) to conclude that trying to find one word to describe both of these types of information was probably not the best approach. In the course of the discussion people called upon experiences from the realms of physical anthropology, industrial design, textbook organization, and directional guides. And, as with any good linguistic discussion, a healthy dose of ancient Greek.
Which left me thinking about the word “clue.” Or more accurately, its antecedent “clew.” It’s a word that means “a ball of yarn or thread” but in particular it tends to refer to the ball of thread that Theseus used to find his way out of the labyrinth and escape the Minotaur. It struck me as a term that was both the embodiment of the concepts that Halvorson was trying to describe AND an apt metaphor for the process we had used to communally navigate our way through the topic.
Unfortunately, the word “clue” is saddled with way too many other meanings, making it difficult to bring this archaic usage back into the common domain. You’d have to redefine the word every time you used it in this new context. If we’re going to successfully co-opt an older word or a word from another industry (see “curate”), either the meaning has to be immediately clear from the new context, or the word has to be curious enough that it makes people stop and ask what you mean.
What are some of your favorite repurposed words?