Vague Job Titles — Wider Reach or Lack of Substance?

One thing I noticed in US business communication is the frequent use of superordinate terms in job titles. For example, instead of saying “translator” or “interpreter,” people may say “linguist.” Similarly, “educator” is used to mean “teacher” and so on and so forth.

I see several problems with this usage. First of all, some of the uses are inaccurate and erode certain concepts. A linguist is a person who studies or researches language, and a translator is someone who conveys the sense/intention of written communication in one language in a written text in a different language; so not every translator is a linguist and not every linguist is a translator. The second problem is that superordinate terms are often very vague and almost completely devoid of meaning out of context. For example, the word “provider” meant to refer to a “physician” may be cryptic to a person outside the healthcare setting.

So why use superordinates? There may be a few reasons for that. First of all, they are useful for referring to groups of (somewhat) related occupations. In the language industry, translators, interpreters, editors, proofreaders, desktop publishing specialists, and localization specialists may all be referred to as “vendors” — an all-encompassing, if somewhat inaccurate, usage. Furthermore, superordinate terms may be used to cover a vague job description or the speaker’s lack of understanding of the job. Don’t know what your uncle does as an EMT? Make him a healthcare provider. Finally, the use of the vaguer, higher-register term may make the job sound more “official” and, therefore, important. A “teacher,” it would seem, merely passes on knowledge, while an “educator” sounds like someone who sets policy and whose mission is generally nobler and more commendable.

Attempts to resist popular usage are usually futile, so I do not believe we can reverse this trend in US business communication. However, I do believe it is important to be aware of superordinates and why they may be used in a particular context. Then maybe we can talk specifics next time we are looking for a “provider” of sorts.

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