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The Power of Words

Posted Jul 14 2009 10:57pm

Flickr-words We all strive to harness the power of words. They are the fundamental building blocks of communication. No matter the channel, no matter the goal, the accuracy of the words we use is vital. But that accuracy goes beyond technical precision. Words are not neutral and must be wielded with caution and forethought. The words we choose can determine the way in which our messages are received and whether or not they are acted upon.


So then, one of the first steps in good BCC is simply choosing the right words. But this is easier said than done. The words we use must be technically accurate yet easily understood; culturally appropriate yet strong enough to motivate change.


Luckily, there are guides to help us navigate the changing terminology of public health’s technical fields.



In 2008, UNAIDS published a terminology guide on HIV and AIDS . More than just recommendations on scientifically accurate language, the guide tries to promote communication that takes into account human rights and the dignity of the individual.

In addition to the UNAIDS guide, the following organizations work to keep web glossaries complete and current.

Reproductive Health

The Population Reference Bureau’s Population Reference Guide is a useful tool that helps one understand the broad implications of demographics and population change. Beginning on page 58, the guide features a glossary of terms and correct usage for reproductive health.

Two terminology resources that address malaria are available online. The first is published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the second is from USAID.

It is important to note that while helpful, each of these sources serve only as recommendations. Technical fields are constantly evolving and changing. New terms will be created and others will fall into misuse. While it can be difficult, it is vital to keep up with current terminology and technical usage. The resources listed here offer a few ways to help you do just that.


Guest blogger Beth Skorochod is a consultant in the HIV department.

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