OPINION25 September 2009

The issue issue

Just as the US government rebranded the War on Terror as The Fight for a Better World in 2005, so many of us have abandoned the real, truthful yet uncomfortable word problem, and substituted the blandly depressing issue instead. It’s the worst type of weasel word.

I don’t think I have issues, and I don’t think you should either.

Just as the US government rebranded the War on Terror as The Fight for a Better World in 2005, so many of us have abandoned the real, truthful yet uncomfortable word problem, and substituted the blandly depressing issue instead. It’s the worst type of weasel word.

What’s my evidence? I did a bit of fishing around on Factiva, the database almost all published articles in the English language. Around 1988 the word issue popped up about as often as the word problem, which is not surprising – there are many legitimate uses of the word. But like a linguistic grey squirrel, issue has been quietly taking over. Here’s a graph of the number of times, in UK-based corporate, industry and economics news sources, that the words problem and issue occur every 1000 articles:

Problems issues per 1000

The sample size is getting on for a million articles a year, so it’s pretty reliable.

In case you’re looking at the graph and thinking “the curves aren’t that steep”, look at what experts will one day call the Phillips Weasel Index (PWI) – the ratio of times that the weasel word “issue” is used compared to “problem”:

Issues over problems

As you can see, in 10 years the ratio has more than doubled. There are now almost three and a half issues per problem. Twenty years ago, the issue/problem PWI was 1.18 – slightly more than one issue per problem. And this is in magazines and newspapers, where people are employed specifically to delete this type of language abuse. In everyday language, I’m guessing the PWI is much higher.

There are several possible explanations. Perhaps there are more issues now, and fewer problems. No, I’m not buying that either. Perhaps we are more interested in writing about our issues now, and less interested in our problems? There’s no evidence for that in the subject matter: we’ve never been more obesessed with the problems of doing business. Maybe it’s the declining standard of copy editing that’s to blame?

I think what’s occurring is a stealthy rebranding: the word problem has become too emotionally loaded to be uttered in polite company in case we think bad things about the companies responsible. So software bugs are now issues rather than problems, even if they stop our computers working and ruin our day.

We now have performance issues with staff who fall asleep on their keyboard, or brand issues with companies that nobody likes, or, worst of all, balance sheet issues.

Rebrand the language all you like to make yourselves feel secure, but on the first anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, let’s remember: whether your company admits to balance sheet issues or problems, it still might be time to send your CV out.