Our Industry's Image: Why Some Common Words May Not Be the Right Words

Some basic terms that water professionals use give outsiders bad impression of the industry. Maybe we should stop using them.

In writing and journalism studies, instructors reminded me often to avoid euphemisms. These are words designed to make things that aren’t so great sound better than they are — in essence a form of deception or, at best, obfuscation.

Some examples? Saying “pre-owned” car when we mean “used.” Calling torture “enhanced interrogation.” Saying someone is “between jobs” instead of “laid off” or “fired.” Substituting “shading the truth” for “lying.”

Sometimes, of course, euphemisms are fine. For example, it can be socially beneficial to soften language so as to avoid being overly blunt. But in general, if we want to communicate clearly, we should be direct and say what we mean.

Tables turned

And that brings me to what I call reverse euphemisms — words that make something sound less good than it really is. Most people wouldn’t use words like that on purpose, and yet, people in the water and wastewater professions do it all the time.

That’s because historically the profession has fixated on the process raw material, instead of the end product. To illustrate: We don’t refer to farms with milk cows as “manure processing facilities,” even though the growing of feed corn and hay for the cattle starts with spreading manure on the fields. We call them dairy farms, and that term conjures images of good things — milk, cheese, ice cream.

Similarly, we don’t refer to those large buildings that make electricity as “coal combustion facilities.” We call them power plants and think of them as sources of energy for our lights, air conditioners, and appliances.

And yet, we use the terms “wastewater treatment plant” or “sewage plant” to refer to facilities that provide sanitation for our communities. Those are reverse euphemisms because what the facilities produce is a highly beneficial and necessary product: clean water. We talk raw material, when we should talk end product.

The wrong imagery

Imagine what average people picture on hearing “wastewater treatment plant.” Most likely they conjure some place outside of town that’s filthy and awful-smelling and run by people in dirty jeans. The term “clean-water plant” leaves a different image entirely. Utilities around the country increasingly understand this. That’s why we have names like DC Water in the nation’s capital, NEW Water in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and Clean Water Services in Oregon.

Arguably, even “clean water” doesn’t go far enough since the facilities also yield biosolids to nourish crops, biogas to generate heat and energy and, in some cases, phosphorous granules for use in fertilizers. That’s why the Water Environment Federation prefers the term “water resource recovery facility.”

The solids side

Although the Water Environment Federation term is more technically precise, I prefer “clean-water plant” in general public forums because it’s elegantly simple and is the real reason for the facility’s existence. But looking beyond clean water, there’s another reverse euphemism that gets thrown around too often: “sewage sludge” or just “sludge.”

Years ago the industry adopted the term “biosolids.” Some might argue that in itself is a euphemism. I respectfully disagree. The connotations of “sludge” are entirely nasty and don’t reflect the product’s physical attributes or benefits. “Sludge” is something disgusting to be gotten rid of. “Biosolids” is something of economic and agronomic value.

And yet, I still see the term “sludge” tossed around by some clean-water operators and some equipment manufacturers who definitely should know better.

In this magazine you’ll see the term “sludge” used in the context of the treatment process: primary sludge, waste and return activated sludge. But once that material enters a digester or other further processing, it becomes biosolids.

Our industry has enough challenges gaining the respect and status it deserves. We shouldn’t retard progress in that direction by persisting with reverse euphemisms. Your thoughts?


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