Learnings is not a word

Learning is something we do. When we learn we can derive lessons — things that we have learnt. We can gain insight. I’d stretch to “gaining insights” when we’ve done especially well. I don’t have a problem with plurals. But we never have ‘learnings’. ‘Learnings’ is not a word. We should all stop saying it.

Face with tears of joy

Sometimes I’m grumpy. On these occasions it irks me that the Oxford Dictionary 2015 Word of the Year was a pictograph. And I’m aware that it takes a particular personality type to choose to call it a pictograph rather than the more common and useful term ‘emoji’. But strap in, that is very much the tone of this piece.

And I know the argument, “in forme of speche is chaunge” people will say to me. They’ll sometimes say it in a practiced Middle English accent, as if I didn’t know they were quoting the 14th century assertions of Geoffrey Chaucer. That winds me up almost as much as learnings. Why do the accent?

Ferdinand de Saussure argued that “No other subject has spawned more absurd ideas, more prejudices, more illusions or more myths” than language. There’s definitely a crank in any debate of whether ‘learnings’ is a word. Every time I catch myself ranting that it isn’t, I have a half-second doubt that maybe I’m the crank. Maybe my fury is absurd, prejudiced and mired in myth. But then I regain my composure and certainty. ‘Learnings’ is not a word.

I’m not arguing that there is some point of sanctity at which we fix the language and conclude that it cannot change. I was happy when I thought the Welsh word for microwave was popty-ping. But apparently that’s just a joke. The welsh word for oven is popty — so the joke is that a microwave is an oven that goes “ping”.

I get it: language changes. I’m happy that in March 2019 MacGyver became a recognised transitive verb in the Oxford English dictionary :

But ‘learnings’ is not a word. Languages have rules. An English speaker would assert, “the spider caught the fly” while a Welsh popty-ping owner would observe “caught the spider the fly.’ In Turkish it would be ‘the spider the fly caught.” In English that would be a sentence more focused on the captive fly than the event of the capture. Language depends on rules. And I know what you’re thinking, “humpback whales change their song annually”. But I don’t see how that’s relevant.

I’m not against the improvised and inventive use of whatever is to hand. I like MacGyver. But ’learnings’ never sounds right. It’s too close to buzzword territory that suggests that these are things that we now know but don’t quite grasp or understand. It makes us all sound like Borat.

Borat poster: Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
Borat poster: Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

Google assures me that it’s on the decline. And look, ‘lessons’ works fine. Yeah, there’s a chance that it invokes painful memories of a childhood classrooms where we never felt comfortable or in control. Maybe it suggests a fixed status for these insights or ‘fact-nuggets, rather than the contingent nature all knowledge should hold in a society at ease with the scientific method. So use ‘insights” or ‘fact-nuggets’ instead of ‘learnings’, both work well in a sentence.

A graph of the frequency of use of “learnings” vs. lessons. Lessons is a “better” word.
A graph of the frequency of use of “learnings” vs. lessons. Lessons is a “better” word.

I suspect there is no conclusion to this debate. But I hope we’ve all learnt something — even if it’s just that thing about whales.

Each year whales will make minor modifications to their song. Over time their song gets richer. Until sometimes they abandon the old and start a new one. No one knows why they reject the older songs. Some theories suggest that as the songs grow they get more complex, too complex. They reach a point where they’re ungainly and it’s easier to start a new one. Gradually the new song spreads until that’s the preferred song among the group. But I don’t see how that’s relevant.

I'm a Creative director at the BBC. I like words, design, data and magic. These are all my own views (apart from retweets. I borrowed those to look clever.)