I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, A Way With Words, this morning when I was reminded of an incident from long ago, where careful word selection almost got me in trouble.
I was an IT director at the time, and my company was in the middle of a break-up, a split, and I found myself needing to write a report detailing the plan for addressing the IT infrastructure during and after this split. Some economies of scale were going to be lost and some resources, once shared, would have to be duplicated to affect perfect autonomy.
The two roughly equal sized business units of the company in question were so different that one could hardly imagine them being run as a single entity in the first place. It was not that their industries weren't aligned or their client bases weren't coincidental; they were. In fact, on paper it was a perfect fit in terms of vertical integration. The difference between the two business units was the vast deltas in areas of management philosophy, staff personalities, and both short and long-term goals. The ownership structure itself even perpetuated this difference by having two companies held within a third holding company.
The IT report I was writing was simple enough. These types of analyses are fairly black and white if you treat them fairly and objectively while giving a little forethought to each entities future. It also doesn't hurt to have an already established reputation for fairness and objectivity with the ownership groups. I also tried to keep a balance sheet going as I wrote the report to both keep the expenditures for each entity roughly equal as well as ensuring that each had an appropriate mix of new and legacy systems. I didn't want either company to be shiny and new, leaving the other to deal with older slower legacy systems to deal with.
The problem arose when I chose the title for the report, "Information Systems Dichotomization Plan".
To my mind, dichotomization was a better word than bifurcation, because dichotomization infers that the split is along a naturally occurring boundary or logical topology feature. Bifurcation has no such distinction, simply referring to splitting a thing into two separate units.
Apparently it struck a a nerve, because almost immediately after publishing my report to the leaders of both units, one of the principals came straight to my office asking me why I used the term dichotomize instead of split or bifurcation, the terms that they had been using internally for their discussions. Apparently, to him, dichotomize had a third connotation which inferred that the the two things being split should never have been conjoined in the first place. Once he said this aloud, I realized that, entirely subconsciously, I too had a vague sense of that inference when I selected the word.
He then asked me if I thought that this split was the "right thing" for the company. Unfortunately, I had to concede that while such a split was, on paper, a mistake, that due to the realities of the personalities involved that I, some time back, had resigned myself to this course of action's inevitability if not its necessity.
The situation ended very well, but I'll never forget getting "called out" for that one word in a twenty page report again.