One of many reasons that communication often breaks down is that we apply general expressions to specific situations. For example, the expression ‘Room temperature.’ Like a lot of expressions, it has a friendly ambiance until you put it in context. If you are just sitting in a room talking with friends, room temperature is fine. But you can’t take a nap in that same room without pulling a blanket over you. And if you start vacuuming the room, you get overheated. A glass of water at room temperature is often considered too warm for drinking while coffee at room temperature is too cold for drinking. Immersing yourself in a bathtub full of water that is room temperature would be a horrible experience.

There is also a lot of variance in the temperature of rooms. Some of the rooms in my house are quiet chilly in the winter, some are comfortable and others are too warm. But each is at room temperature. A cold storage room is an extreme example. Someone came into my office recently and said “It’s really hot in here.” I responded, “It’s room temperature.”

“It stinks” is another problematic expression that is used in all sorts of improper situations. If a room stinks, it might smell bad, or it might just be poorly decorated. I think dog poop stinks, but apparently dogs have a different opinion. I like the smell of horse poop, but non-horse people think it stinks. A friend of mine wrote me that her job “stinks.” I was tempted to ask if she worked in a feedlot. We need to be more precise in our declarations.

“It sucks” is a very overused expression that rarely involves sucking, and never has a good association – even with vacuum cleaners. Babies suck, but we don’t say that. We say they ‘nurse or they suckle.” Every time you drink a beverage with a straw, you suck. It’s one of those words that rarely get used in a good way. If your date sucked, it probably was a bad date. But then maybe not.

“Cool” has re-emerged as an expression of appreciation. I recently asked someone how her vacation was in Nicaragua. She said it was “cool.” I assumed that she meant it was a fun vacation. Had it really had been chilly there, I would never have gotten the message. “Neat” is a similar expression that rarely means tidy or organized. Like ‘cool’ it is used to describe feelings of satisfaction, fun, interest, or pleasure. 

The room was cool, the people were neat, but the atmosphere stunk.” Was it chilly in the room? Were the people dressed well? Was there a skunk in the room? It could describe a meat packing plant or a party that wasn’t much fun.

And why is it that people who rarely ever do good, are always saying that they are doing good? If you give to charity or help an old woman across a busy street, you are doing good. If you are making lots of money, are getting good grades in school, or your health is excellent, you are doing well. Doing good is often tax deductible. Doing well rarely is.

I feel sorry for people trying to learn English as a second language. It’s cool that they try, but some really suck at it. However, even if their English stinks, its neat that they can speak it at all, and some of them are doing good at it. But then to them, room temperature is around 21 degrees Celsius – which sounds cool to me.