Thirty-two writers recently signed a letter to the New York Times complaining about two expressions we often hear in discussions about current events: quid pro quo and “dig up dirt.” You can read the letter here.
I think the letter makes an excellent point: when you use a word carelessly, you risk losing precision and clarity.
The letter mentioned two problems with quid pro quo. One is that many people don’t understand what it means (literally this for that – an exchange of favors).
More seriously, there’s nothing wrong with a quid pro quo exchange of favors, even though the term is often used in an accusatory way. We do it all the time. I’ll water your houseplants when you’re on vacation, and you’ll do the same for me.
If you’re claiming that a politician is pressuring someone for personal gain, that’s not quid pro quo or an exchange of favors. A more accurate word would be extortion.
Similarly the expression “digging up dirt” is too vague to be useful. Are you looking for evidence of wrongdoing? Say so: “I’m researching Richard Nixon’s behavior during the Watergate investigation.”
If someone is pushing a false story, call it what it is: “telling lies.”
“Words matter,” according to those 32 writers. Amen. You and I – in our everyday conversations – are often confronted with choices. We can select words that tell the truth – or we can manipulate, exaggerate, and fabricate.
I highly recommend making the ethical choice.