English is tricky (aka “The Unconscious Customer” or “Are you conscious of your conscience?”)

I was reading about H&M’s environmental and socio-economic awareness (steady on!) which they’re running under the banner H&M Conscious. The first heading of their “Conscious Actions Highlights from 2012” PDF (found in their “highlights from 2012” link) reads: “Commitment One: Provide fashion for conscious customers” – see below:

I find conscious customers are always far more likely to buy than unconscious ones…

Immediately it struck me (as it would most native English speakers) that they were using the wrong word! The majority of people will understand ‘conscious’ as “to be alive”, whereas ‘conscientious’ (the adjective of ‘conscience’) as meaning “done according to one’s inner sense of what is right” (which is what I think they were getting at). Replacing “Conscious” with “Conscientious” throughout their copy would not only be more accurate but also convey far more commitment to the central theme of sustainability. I realise that conscious can also mean “to be aware of” but it generally infers far less concern than conscientious does. Perhaps H&M wish to infer more of a “lighter touch” to the subject matter and distance themselves from too much of a commitment? Reneging on the published mandate would be disconcerting – according to the mighty Wiki H&M aren’t out of the woods when it comes to controversies (sadly some of them relate to the very subject that this “Conscious” promotion addresses).

Now my Swedish (H&M’s home country) is not too hot either so I’m certainly not going to ridicule H&M for their faux pas (fashion-wise or not). But it got me thinking as to how much of a minefield the English language is. If you look up the meanings of conscience and conscious the definitions do get close to one another (e.g. conscious: fully aware of or sensitive to something / conscience: an inner feeling or voice viewed as a guide) so it’s not just a matter of using the right word, it’s also a question of context. The only effective way context can be fully understood is by speaking and reading English regularly – as it’s also a language that is constantly evolving.

A prime example of this “word evolution” is the word gay – very few people will now use it to talk about the prettiness of a flower or the vibrant colours of a dress yet those meanings still exist in the dictionary – though very much lower in the definitions order from the more recognised meanings pertaining to homosexuality. I wonder if this redefining of a word’s meaning occurs in other languages?

And then there’s spelling – a pet subject of mine. Someone pointed out a really great example of how the English language flagrantly disregards rules that have been created to help de-mystify it:

I before E….

…except when you run a feisty heist on a weird beige foreign neighbour.

Again, only learning these spellings (or relying on spellcheck) will ensure that you get it rite – and an example there of why you shouldn’t rely on spellcheckers 😉

As a language English is tricky and I have the greatest of admiration for those learning English as a second language – it’s such a “twisty turny thing” (© Black Adder – BBC TV comedy, uniquely British in content – Google it!). If you are a student battling your way through English Language studies I have no better suggestion for improving your vocabulary and use of it other than reading and viewing English publications / productions whenever you get the opportunity and talking to as many English people as you can! I’m not going to address the whole English / British vs “American English” subject as that would take up a whole post on its own – suffice to say that England invented the language and America “tweaked” it (mainly on spellings and “inventing” words). Through watching BBC (and other UK production companies’) programmes you may NEVER understand the “British humour” (which is not just Monty Python) but you will gain a method of keeping up with the evolving language and hopefully be entertained on the way 🙂


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