Words have meaning

Words have meaning


“The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms.”   (Socrates)

The other day, as my husband was flipping through channels, I heard a reporter, commenting on covering US President Trump, say something like, “We don’t know what he means when he uses words.” 


Though President Trump seems to have raised obfuscation and linguistic misdirection to a fine art, he’s hardly the first government official to use words to obscure, rather than clarify, meaning.   My pet peeve in this area is the near universal governmental insistence on using “health” to mean “medicine.” 

Here in Nova Scotia, we have a Department of Health and Wellness, which devotes only a tiny percentage of it’s budget to anything related to health – most of it goes to treating sickness through funding doctors and hospitals.

We have ambulances with “Emergency Health Services” emblazoned on their sides.  Think for a moment.  What constitutes a “health emergency”?  I’m pretty sure those vehicles and the paramedics that accompany them are rushing sick and injured people to hospitals for medical treatment and not to the gym for a good, health-promoting workout.

Nova Scotia isn’t alone in this.  All of our provincial/territorial governments use the same terminology:

  • NL:  Department of Health and Community Services
  • PEI:  Department. Of Health and Wellness
  • NB:  New Brunswick Health
  • NS:  Department. Of Health and Wellness
  • QC:  Ministère de la Santé et des Services sociaux
  • ON:  Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care
  • MB:  Department of Manitoba Health, Seniors and Active Living
  • SK:  Ministry of Health
  • AB:  Alberta Health
  • BC:  Ministry of Health
  • NU:  The Department of Health
  • YT:  Yukon Health and Social Services
  • NWT:  Health and Social Services


There has been a great deal of research on what makes people healthy and it is nicely summarized in Social Determinants of Health: The Canadian Facts.  The authors, Juha Mikkonen and Dennis Raphael, put it clearly:

“The primary factors that shape the health of Canadians are not medical treatments or lifestyle choices but rather the living conditions they experience…our health is shaped by how income and wealth is distributed, whether or not we are employed and if so, the working conditions we experience. Our health is also determined by the health and social services we receive, and our ability to obtain quality education, food and housing, among other factors.”

The bottom line is that “health” requires a lot more than access to doctors, hospitals, and medical treatment.  It will require a collaborative effort from all parts, and all levels, of government.  Once we understand this, as a community and as a country, we might be able to ask for changes that would make us all healthier."Words have meaning

I think being clear about the difference between “health” and “medical care” would be a good place to start.

Since I’m not expecting this use of language to change anytime soon, I’ll continue to be irritated by the imprecision and hope (and work) for the day when “health” will be an accurate name for these government departments.


About the Author

Jan Catano is a Health Education Consultant with over 30 years experience in developing health information tailored to the needs of specific audiences.