Words Matter

by Marilyn on August 26, 2013


In health care we have a story we call “The 71-Million Dollar Word Story”.

It involves a young man from Cuba, the absence of a skilled interpreter, and a misdiagnosis.

The man was 18 years old and had just graduated from high school. He was riding around with his friend when he complained of a bad headache. He thought it was because of the strong smell of gas in his friend’s car but by the time he got home the pain was so severe that he was crying.  He went into a coma soon afterward and was transferred to a local hospital in a comatose state. The family was sick with worry as they waited in the emergency room for this man to be assessed. The word ‘intoxicado’ was used and, in the absence of a professional interpreter, it was assumed that the young man was ‘intoxicated’, had taken a drug overdose and was suffering the effects. The family had no idea this was the way the words were interpreted. Had they known they could have attested that the young man never used drugs or alcohol, that health was extremely important to this young athlete. Rather, ‘Intoxicado’ was a word used in Cuba to mean a general state of being unwell because of something you ate or drank. It was the only word they could think of to express the sudden onset of his symptoms.

The misinterpretation of this word caused a misdiagnosis resulting in an 18-year-old becoming a quadriplegic, for in reality he had suffered a brain bleed and lay for two days in a hospital bed without proper treatment. Had the hospital staff made the correct diagnosis the man would have left the hospital in a few days, on his way to college and a normal life.

This tragic event resulted in a lawsuit and if this man lives to be 74, he will receive a total payment of 71 million dollars.

Because words matter.

Words are our primary way of conveying everything from symptoms to silliness.

All misuse of words doesn’t result in tragedy. Sometimes the results are humorous. Like when Pepsi translated a “Come Alive! You’re the Pepsi Generation!” ad into Chinese it was translated literally as “Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead”. Or when the “Got Milk”  campaign was adapted for a Spanish market, the phrase was understood as “Are you lactating”.  And then there was the more personal time when my friend called a Pakistani man a laxative instead of by his name – just the slip of one sound resulted in a not easily forgotten faux pas.

Because words matter.

Those of us who work across cultural boundaries understand and experience this on a daily basis. From asking for juice at a local grocery store to communicating during emergency situations, we need our words. Words are something we miss most when we first arrive in a country. We know what it is to struggle to communicate, to struggle to find words.

Most of all, we long for words to communicate the gospel story, long to put words together to form sentences and thoughts that have meaning; life-giving, God-breathed meaning.

There’s a well-known story in the New Testament where Jesus used words, words to convey living truth to a thirsty heart. He used words that confound and challenge, attract and puzzle. He used words with a woman who was culturally from a completely different background than his own. He communicated across cultural barriers and boundaries to a woman at a well who was just getting water, a normal part of her every day life. Jesus used words to change a woman’s life.  He used words to change hearts and ultimately an entire community.

Every time I tell the story of the 71 million dollar word, I am challenged anew. For as big and as tragic as the 71 million dollar word is, there are many times when our words have eternal implications that go beyond lawsuits and tragic life events.

Words matter. And so I work to use words in a way that brings hope and life to thirsty hearts.

How have you used words in the past week to bring life to the community where you live? Have you longed to use words more effectively lately? Join the conversation through the comments.

Marilyn Gardner – grew up in Pakistan and as an adult lived in Pakistan and Egypt for 10 years. She currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  She loves God, her family, and her passport in that order. Find her blogging at Communicating Across Boundaries and on Twitter@marilyngard


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About Marilyn

An adult third culture kid, Marilyn grew up in Pakistan and then raised her own 5 third culture kids in Pakistan and Egypt. She currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts 15 minutes from the international terminal. She works with underserved, minority communities as a public health nurse and flies to the Middle East & Pakistan as often as possible. She is the author of Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging and you can find her blogging at Communicating Across Boundaries.
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  • Words have such power, Marilyn! The words we CHOOSE to use are so important! They can break others down or build them up. They can create understand or sow hurt and discontent. They can heal or they can wound. I actually had written a different first paragraph to my muffin post this morning, but because it involved my daughter, I knew I needed to let her read it before I hit publish. She asked me to change part of what I had said because it discussed the way girls (and, sadly, women) who purport to be friends, hurt each other with words. Last semester was challenging for her in that regard and I am praying that this next one will see a change of hearts. And a use of kinder words.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Interesting – my daughter had a really difficult last semester because of words as well. She headed off today and my prayer is the same as yours. Thanks for sharing this Stacy.

      • Adding your daughter and her friends to my prayer list as well then, Marilyn. Let the healing begin!

  • Tim

    I wrote a piece for our agency’s Spanish translators the other day and used intoxicado ‘poisoned’ / intoxicated ‘drunk’ as an example of false cognates. I will add this story as an example of the importance of this distinction.

  • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

    Just spent the evening talking about the differences in choices for describing righteousness versus straightness in local languages .

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Would have loved to hear some of the substance of the conversation. My dad did Bible translation and I can still remember him spending hours on one word, trying to get it right with his Muslim translator.

      • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

        A lot of it was about how too often outsiders ‘dumb’ down the language we learn in an attempt to make sense or communicate. We get stuck at a pretty basic level. So translations of all kinds of materials end up too simplistic or too lacking in nuances in areas like ‘high’ or more respectful terminology. I totally agreed with my local friend that language learners, especially those involved in translation projects, need to go for broke when it comes to learning big, heavier words.

        • Marilyn Gardner

          So true – I’d not thought about that. It’s easy to think our words are enough at a basic vocabulary, instead of realizing how much clearer we could be if we learned more. Also how much more seriously we would be taken.

  • Yes! Words matter! You did a fabulous job of expressing the importance of language, Marilyn. The story of the woman at the well is one of my favorites. I had never made the connection that words (The Word) satiated her thirst and that this same eternal power resides in the flow of our words. Beautiful!

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Thank you for these lovely words. I always feel like you make any post better just from your comments. You have a way of taking things from the post and weaving your words over them adding to the conversation in a beautiful way. It reminds me of the “speech seasoned with salt” verse….

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