The truth about the word 'oral'.

I was recently reminded at work about how we regularly misuse the word 'oral'. In this case, it was a job description that mentioned giving 'oral presentations' and 'written and oral' something or others.

Now, I will admit that using the word oral or orally to refer to something spoken is completely allowed by dictionaries and common usage. It's just that I think it's time to change that.

When people hear the word 'oral' or orally, they think of two things, and neither has to do with verbal or spoken communication. They have to do with a person's mouth. The first, which I'm sure jumped into your brain the second you read this post's title is, well, I'll get to that in a second. The second thing you thought of is health care related to the mouth. Oral hygiene, oral care, Orajel, take this medication orally, etc. It's a nice clinical description for the mouth, and it covers the teeth, tongue, gums, etc. It doesn't refer to the voice box, which actually produces the words. You can measure body temperature with a thermometer orally or anally. Come to think of it, the word 'oral' is a nice compliment to 'anal'. The intake and the exhaust portals, if you will.

Which leads me back to the first thing you thought of regarding the word oral: oral sex. Come on, admit it. Not that there's anything wrong with thinking of oral sex first. It's not even your fault; the only time the word 'oral' gets used in the media anymore is to try to politely describe this act in as clinical a term as possible. Like crime reports, or newspaper articles, etc. Whenever one hears or reads the word 'oral' these days, one is fully expecting to hear it followed by 'sex.'

That's why it makes no sense to refer to spoken or verbal communication as oral. Oral belongs to health and sex now. It just does. So lets make a clean break. After all, we don't refer to written communication as 'manual' even though it has to be performed with the hands, one way or another. The hands are the means, the writing is the medium, and for communication, the medium matters. By the same token, referring to communication as something coming out of one's mouth is irrelevant; the mouth is just the means. The medium is the voice, the audio transmission: spoken or verbal. And verbal is never used in connection with clinical health (again, oral) or sexual contexts (it's called phone sex or pillow talk).

Verbal communication, not oral. Spread the word. Verbally, and in writing.


Wendy S said...

What about the word 'orate', eh? Or, should it be 'verbalate'? or verbalitize???

Trackball of Truth said...

'Orate' is clunky. 'Speak' is much clearer than 'orate'. No one says 'orate': it sounds like an air-powered vacuum cleaner. On second thought, forget the previous thought.