Changing times, changing vocabulary

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Posted on 
September 8, 2020
Written by 
Charles Slowey (About the author) , Assistant Deputy Minister, Canadian Heritage

I’ve been thinking lately about how we communicate. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed so many things about how we lead our personal and professional lives. More than ever before, we’re using a variety of chat and videoconference tools to communicate. In addition, new vocabulary has entered into common usage. Words, terms and concepts that we rarely used in the past, or that belonged to the domain of experts, are now part of our day-to-day language. How often did we talk about “social distancing” in 2019? Did we even know what it meant?

Over the course of my career, I’ve had the privilege of working in a number of different departments and agencies. For me, part of the thrill of working in the public service has been the opportunity to immerse myself in various subject areas; learn about the multitude of policies, programs and activities that exist in individual organizations; and work with amazing, talented people in a variety of organizational cultures. I’ve enjoyed it all.

I grew up in Toronto in a unilingual family but had the opportunity to attend primary and secondary school in French. Learning to speak French fed my love of language and words. When I came to Ottawa to pursue a degree, it had to include studies in French literature. Although chance led me to embark on a career in the public service, my ability to communicate in both English and French has opened doors throughout my career, allowing me to experience much of the richness that the public service has to offer.

I’ve observed that, in each department and agency, there are nuances in how words or terms are used to describe things. That’s normal. When you join a new organization, there’s a learning curve and you adapt. But I must admit that the acronyms alone can be daunting!

Up until a few months ago, I had never used the terms “sero-surveillance” or “epidemiology,” or talked about mobile applications for “contact tracing.” Today, these important terms are used across the country by our public health leaders and come up frequently in discourse on the pandemic, both in online communications and in the media. When it comes to personal protective equipment, otherwise known as “PPE,” how many of us outside the medical community could have explained what an “N95 mask” is or how it differs from a “non-medical face covering”? Today, these terms are all part of our lexicon and our daily lives. They’re all critical for understanding the measures we’re using to tackle the pandemic and maintain public health in Canada.

As assistant deputy minister at Canadian Heritage, I’ve had the incredible opportunity to take the lead on a number of government priorities, like the implementation of the Indigenous Languages Act. Since April, I’ve been on assignment with the Public Health Agency of Canada, helping with the COVID-19 response. In this role, I’m getting first-hand experience with COVID-19 terminology and using it every day.

How many more words will become part of our everyday vocabulary in the next few months? As I continue my career in the public service, I’m sure I’ll keep learning all kinds of terminology at unexpected moments. If you’d like to know more about terms related to the pandemic, you can consult the Translation Bureau’s Glossary on the COVID-19 pandemic (opens in new tab).

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About the author

Charles Slowey

Charles Slowey

Charles is the Assistant Deputy Minister for Community and Identity at Canadian Heritage. Previously, he held leadership roles focused on policy, program delivery and communications in a number of departments and agencies.

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This is a good post and makes a great point about how we can all learn things by doing, by immersing ourselves in a new context. The implication is that we should have more faith in people's ability to pick things up on the fly and be less rigid in the way we allocate jobs and tasks.
Besides that, we should be learning some climate change terminology!

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