little words mean a lot

by Sharon Telfer

Hands up, who knew what a jerrycan was?

If you’re like me – and possibly Francis Maude – you probably thought it was just a container for petrol.

If you’re like my partner, who happily spent the glorious March sunshine in the garage doing up a moped, you already knew it’s a large piece of military kit holding around 20 litres.

And if you’re a member of the Fire Brigades Union, you know very well that storing 20 litres of petrol at home in a single container isn’t just dangerous, it’s illegal.

There was so much wrong with the government’s communications around a possible strike by tanker drivers. The language used was only one part of the tangle. But a lot of controversy has hung upon that single word, ‘jerrycan’, after minister Francis Maude’s advice that drivers keep a little bit of petrol spare in one. Its use has even led to calls for him to resign.


Looking back at the videoclip that started the row, Maude does seem to pick the word up from his interviewer. But in his blog the BBC’s political editor, Nick Robinson, says the government’s strategy was clearly to encourage stories which might persuade drivers to stock up with petrol. If that’s the case, such a strategy would – or should – have included a communications plan and briefing for key spokespeople.

‘Jerrycan’ has a technical meaning that carries legal implications. Google ‘jerrycan definition’ and the large capacity is obvious. My Shorter Oxford dictionary includes the telltale five gallons in its concise description. A quick safety-check on the relevant law and related vocabulary as part of the comms planning could have avoided a statement that was both damaging and, most importantly, potentially dangerous.

Small word, big difference

Reporting of the story also demonstrated, more subtly, the power of a single word. Three days after the Maude interview, successive bulletins on Radio 4 stated that the government had changed its advice to motorists ‘again’.

That little word ‘again’ makes a big difference. Drop it and the report is still accurate. Keep it and you reinforce that whole sense of confusion, incompetence, panic even – of a body that doesn’t know what it’s doing.

We’re all engrossed with thinking about the new opportunities for comms – conversational engagement through social media, telling stories through infographics, imaginative approaches to film. It’s easy to forget the power that simple words still have, even the most commonplace.

The fewer words we use, the more weight each one carries. It’s more important than ever to use them well if you want your message to be clear.

Remember, the dictionary is your friend.

Sharon Telfer
is a freelance writer and editor. Until 2011, she was Head of Publishing and Content at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.  She’s been helping people find the right words for over 20 years.

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