Choosing the words we use

Every human language is constantly changing, as people grapple with explaining, describing and understanding our world. This is a good thing; languages that never change die. The words we choose to label ideas, objects and people evolve, and our usage changes the words themselves.

Of course, as we are all aware, this is not strictly an organic process. Powerful players go to great lengths (with great means at their disposal) to change the meanings of words in ways both subtle and not.

For instance, we now have the “sharing economy.” This moniker is used to describe relatively new arrangements whereby people rent out space (in their homes, in the case of Airbnb) or charge for services (providing taxi service in their personal vehicles, as with Uber and Lyft). If this co-optation of “sharing” to denote commercial relationships sticks, it will be interesting to see how we eventually describe an act of generosity that does not involve payment.

Examples move in the other direction, too, when commercial language is adopted to designate personal, philosophical or civic concepts: charities solicit “investments” in their good works; we speak without irony of “the marketplace of ideas”; and we are no longer “patients” but health care consumers.

Is questioning the way words are chosen and used just engaging in semantics? Maybe, but semantics really matter. Try to envision someone undergoing heart surgery as a health care consumer. A patient on the operating table deserves our sympathy and care. Does a consumer?

At many public libraries, including ours in Cleveland Heights and University Heights, we are now designated “customers” rather than “library patrons.” This is despite the fact that primary meanings of “patron” are supporter and funder, and library-using citizens are both of these. The word “customer” denotes a commercial relationship of buying and selling. It’s unlikely most of us see ourselves as engaging in commerce when we borrow a book or research a subject—or when we vote “Yes” on a levy to fund library operations. Do we regard librarians as sales associates? Heights residents value our library system as a public asset supported by the entire community and operated for the common good. We love our public libraries so much that we consistently vote to raise our own taxes to support them. In what sense, then, are we customers?

Last April, our guest columnist Greg Coleridge reviewed some of the challenges we face in rebuilding the infrastructure of democracy, stating: “A culture that . . . worships 'the market' as the sole route to financial and economic salvation . . . denigrates anything that is ‘public’ as inefficient, wasteful, outdated and dangerous; [and] celebrates anything ‘private’ as efficient, modern and safe.” []

Let’s be thoughtful about the words we choose to describe human relationships and public institutions. Not everything can be bought and sold. Let’s try to use language that makes that clear.

Updates to past columns:

“The Coventry School site: In whose interest?” (July 2017): On June 26, we attended a joint meeting of the CH-UH Board of Education and CH City Council, at which City Manager Tanisha Briley announced that the city’s RFQ for development of the Coventry property now includes a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) stating that current tenants of the building will be permitted occupancy until at least June 30, 2018. This alleviates the immediate threat to those organizations’ announced programming and operations for the 2017–18 season. A public forum to discuss possible plans for Coventry P.E.A.C.E. Park and the Coventry School building was held on July 27. According to city council, it will not issue the RFQ/RFP before it meets on Sept. 11.

"Take back the CH Building Department" (July 2016): At the July 3 CH Council Committee of the Whole meeting, Cleveland Heights Council Member Kahlil Seren mentioned that he has been discussing with a member of the South Euclid City Council the possible establishment of a regional building commission to satisfy the building inspection requirements of several area municipalities. Seren said he will have more to report on the subject soon. Last year, CH Mayor Cheryl Stephens and Council Member Carol Roe had expressed interest in this idea as well. Now that the city has contracted out its building operations to SAFEBuilt, a Colorado-based corporation, for a full year, council’s public health and safety committee plans to evaluate SAFEBuilt's performance.

Our column is archived here:

Carla Rautenberg and Deborah Van Kleef

Carla Rautenberg is an activist and a lifelong Cleveland Heights resident. Deborah Van Kleef is a musician and writer, who has lived in Cleveland Heights for most of her life. Contact them at


Read More on Heights of Democracy
Volume 10, Issue 8, Posted 1:57 PM, 08.01.2017