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I am no linguist. Apart from schoolboy French, mostly long forgotten, I know no language other than English. Nevertheless, I have a love of language. One of the fascinating things about the English language is that, whilst there are some things for which there is more than one word, there are also many words that have more than one meaning.
It is the latter fact, in relation to one word in particular, that has mired the Irish Cancer Society in controversy in recent days. The particular word is “get”.
Meaning #1: acquire, as in “I’m going to get a new phone.”
Meaning #2: understand, as in “I get that there is more than one meaning for the word ‘get’.”
Meaning #3: to wreak revenge, as in “I’ll get you for that.”
The Society has been running a series of television and radio advertisements in which individuals are recorded saying “I want to get cancer.” Some of these clips are broadcast without any accompanying explanation. The explanation, when it comes, relies on a statistical prediction to the effect that half the population will be diagnosed with cancer in the next few years.
The individuals in the advertisements are implying that if one out of every two people is going to be diagnosed, they would rather it was them than their friend, partner or close relative.
The society’s message goes on to point out that they, too, want to “get” cancer, both in the sense that they are working hard to understand cancer in order to find more effective treatments, and that their aim is, not so much to wreak revenge on it, as to destroy it.
It is a clever play on words and the wonderful peculiarities of our language. The problem is that, whilst literate adults have no problem grasping the underlying message, the way it is presented, with people saying they want to get cancer with no explanation, children, especially those who may have seen a close relative die from cancer, are disturbed by the thought that anyone would want to acquire such a devastating disease.
One mother, whose 20 year old son was diagnosed with a particularly nasty form of the disease in August and died shortly before Christmas, is so angry that she has posted an open letter to the Society on Facebook. The post has received a great many “shares” and “likes” and attracted many messages of support.
Whoever came up with this idea at the Society – or approved it, if devised by an agency – is probably regretting their decision. The official line is that they wanted to get (that word again!) people talking. Whether the conversation that is being had is the one they wanted, however, is questionable.