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Wilf Popoff

WASTED WORDS: A World Without Problems

Sepia, yellow and blue futuristic headshot of an astronaut in a helmut, looking intently, and perhaps fearfully, at the camera.

Sepia, yellow and blue futuristic headshot of an astronaut in a helmut, looking intently, and perhaps fearfully, at the camera.“Houston we have a challenge!”

“This is Houston Apollo. What do you mean by challenge?”

“A power drop in one of the two main electrical circuits.”

“That’s a problem Apollo. Can’t copy challenge.”

I’ve altered parts of this celebrated exchange from 43 years ago to support my case.

At the time challenge was a word used to identify projects with uncertain outcomes: it was a challenge to swim Lake Ontario or to stand up after a four-martini lunch.

Today challenge has banished problem to the backwater of the English lexicon to join the archaic and the politically incorrect. Writers and speakers are afraid to describe something as a problem. Why is that?

Problem suggests something negative, which is no longer acceptable in the modern business culture; focusing on the negative can cut into the fees of life coaches and seminar facilitators. It’s safer to use the word challenge, which inspires positivism, opportunity, and repeat engagements. And when challenge is too much of a stretch there’s the more neutral issue.

Too often this usage is misleading and absurd.

Job posting: “Our technical support teams work with clients to solve a wide variety of technology challenges.”

Mining company annual report: “A water inflow presented challenges.”

And when a major Canadian newspaper bleeds revenue, the editor portrays the resulting sackings as addressing “the real life business challenges we face.”

Obviously, problems is avoided to disguise negativity: successful technology companies can’t have problems, shareholders are wary of mine flooding problems, and reporters and editors supposedly feel better knowing they weren’t fired because their employer had problems.

Of course polite talk needs euphemisms: Uncle Basil is under the weather again, not drunk. The deception here, however, is apparent, not sinister.

But avoiding the P-word is invariably sinister. We replace it with challenge to hide something or to have people believe all problems are good.

And I have a problem with that.

Wasted Words is a series of musings on language and usage by editor emeritus Wilf Popoff.

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One Comment “WASTED WORDS: A World Without Problems”

  • Frances Peck


    Delightful posting! I miss the old meaning of «challenge.» Once a bracingly positive word, suggesting muscular battles and complex puzzles, «challenge» has become a flabby, pallid thing, a true whitewash. Its antonym in most of the material I edit is «opportunities.» For years now, I’ve been unable to see the two words together without imagining them as a board game, Challenges and Opportunities, the corporate/government equivalent of Snakes and Ladders.

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