Dictionaries as propaganda: The Swaziland Department for Definitions reduces social unrest

samfloy~6 July 2019 /Random

I had an interesting conversation this week which highlighted the practical impact of something that, on the surface, seems quite trivial: the official definition of “activist”.

Over dinner, the guy next to me (from Eswatini, but living in Nairobi) explained the situation.

Brief overview of Eswatini (previously Swaziland)

It’s a small landlocked country in Southern Africa. The population is ~1.3 million people and is a bit smaller than Fiji.

It’s ruled by a King. Mswati III is the head of the government after taking over from his father in 1986.

For those, like me, needing to update myself of African politics/ geography, in 2018 the King announced that the country was no longer Swaziland, and instead Eswatini.

What’s the word for..?

The national language is Eswatini is Swazi.

There are lots of words for things native to the country, but occasionally new words will enter the lexicon and an official Swazi translation is needed.

An example is “computer” which translates as “machine with a brain”.

My friend said that there is a government department that sets these definitions (so there can be consistency across, say, school textbooks).

An opportunity for influence

Coming up with a definition seems like a relatively mundane task, however it also holds the potential for soft power.

As well as things like “computer” there are other words which don’t have a native Swazi definition and so need to be decided upon.

Such as “activist”.

In English, the word activist has quite positive connotations: “a person who campaigns to bring about political or social change”.

Translating in Swazi though, my friend was saying that the government settled on a definition closer to “a person who causes social unrest by breaking the law”.

Often “activists” will, at some level, break the law and so the definition is somewhat accurate.

Anyway, in the minds of Swazis, an “activist” is then synonymous with “criminal” meaning people are keen distance themselves with such an association.

Result = less people feel inclined to take to the streets as their actions will be interpreted as “activist” and as such the political order is retained.

Needing a word for something

This notion of how words affect our interpretation of concepts is, to me at least, really interesting.

One of my favourite examples is the word “downsizing”. 

This article explains it more, but the principle is that older people would often want to reduce the size of their house once the kids left.

“Before ‘downsizing’ was a word, any move to a smaller property was faintly embarrassing — it implied you couldn’t pay the gas bill or your pension was with Equitable Life. The new word gives people a new license to move, by suggesting you are moving through choice not the force of circumstance.”

Things like this are a good reminder of the weight and meaning that come with words and how, if you’re looking to change people’s perceptions, something as simple as changing the metaphor or choice of words can be the most powerful.

In other news…

Earlier this week I was interviewed for a podcast.

Though the podcast is called the Financial Modelling Podcast there was very little talk about spreadsheets/ forecasting. Instead, I chatted about my experience doing business in East Africa.

Anyway, if you’re interested, you can see/ listen to it here: https://financialmodellingpodcast.com/

This post originally featured in the newsletter I write. If you’d like to sign up to receive it at the start of each month, you can do so below: