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Language matters. I have seen this simple statement more times than I care to remember. It is used by patients, nurses, psychologists, doctors and many other healthcare professionals. In this editorial I would like to offer a view of what a statement means to a linguist. And so, first, what we say does not just mean, it means something in a particular context; second, even more importantly, language does not consist only of words, and this is why medicine and medics should focus on their ‘way of speaking’.
Let me first explain the issue of context. Take the word ‘evidence’. It is very likely to be considered innocuous and unstigmatising. And yet, imagine a situation (it is a real situation from my own patient life) in which you are asked to tell your doctor how you feel. You talk, and talk, and talk some more, but when you are finished, the doctor turns away, looks at their computer screen and says:
So, the evidence is…
And they tell you that the test results just about invalidate all you said. All of a sudden, ‘evidence’ becomes the ‘real stuff’ which in one stroke obliterates how you feel. The powerful ‘objective evidence’ is juxtaposed with your story which …
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