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  • Writer's pictureMelanie Reinersman

Metaphorically Speaking: Using Language Tools to Convey Career-life Meaning

Updated: May 27, 2020

Does your client walk away from your sessions nonplussed? Do the vets you assist realize your compliment of “passing with flying colors” is a military phrase? How much clarification (or confusion?!) exists in the world of career services due to language tools? Spending time examining our word choices and seeking feedback from those we serve, may reveal valuable insights – try focusing on the steak, not just the sizzle. ~ Melanie Reinersman,

FOCUS ON: Defining Terms in the Field of Career Counseling

One key to using language as a tool is to determine that the terms being used communicate the same meaning to the entire audience. Typically, for definitions we look in dictionary – but which one fits our field? In the past, many practitioners used the DOT! (The Dictionary of Occupational Titles ended publication in 1999. Most now use the O*NET.) Over 30 pages of career terms can be found in the Encyclopedia of Counseling (published by the American Counseling Association).  Also helpful would be a professional association’s guidelines that typical defines terms. For example the NCDA’s Guidelines for the Preparation and Evaluation of Career and Occupational Information Literature  includes a “Definition of Terms” section at the beginning of the document. Practitioners are invited to submit their sources of definitions here to be added to this list.

FOR PRACTITIONERS: Metaphors and the Client

“Metaphor – the substituting of physical or dramatic images for the abstract concept of ‘career'” says Inkson in his article, “Metaphor: A New Way of Thinking About Careers”. Many metaphorical concepts can be found and used with clients, such as how the job search is like riding a segway. Sometimes its about how not to use a metaphor – as in “Stop Saying Career ‘path‘”.


The American Dialect Society voted for “they” as the word of the year for 2015. “They was recognized by the society for its emerging use as a pronoun to refer to a known person, often as a conscious choice by a person rejecting the traditional gender binary of he and she.” Currently APA style has not yet commented on a style change from he/she to they as a gender-neutral singular pronoun. On a related note, gender-biased terms have been commented upon in the Supplement to the APA Publication Manual. Read more about writing clearly about transgender persons.

What Other Career Development Professionals Are Saying About: Green Career Development

The 2016 keynote address at Canada’s career development conference was not about recycling office products. It was about authenticity, integrity and virtue. Dr. Norman Amundson explains how to apply green career development to working life and the process of helping clients in this video:

TOP TEN: Career Analogies and Metaphors

Clients resonate with simple explanations of what choosing a career is like (e.g., going to the shopping mall) or the process of landing a job (e.g., matchmaking). Read all these metaphors and analogies shared in Psychology Today by a Ph.D. counselor.


“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns, as it were, instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.” - George Orwell
“I was reading the dictionary. I thought it was a poem about everything.” - Steven Wright
Language is by its very nature a communal thing; that is, it expresses never the exact thing but a compromise — that which is common to you, me, and everybody. - Thomas Earnest Hulme


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