Words matter. The use of a simple word can have deadly meaning. Such is the case with the words surrounding the Ebola virus, which has affected over 8,000 people according to the World Health Organization. This is a time for precision in how we think and talk. Labels sometimes stick.

Isolation: To be "isolated" typically means lacking in social contact with people. We encourage our children and elderly not to become isolated because it is unhealthy to be alone. Human contact is something we celebrate. The more friends and fans you have, the better. Isolation also has a political meaning. We label "isolationists" as those who advocate for domestic politics to trump overseas relationships.


Yet in the context of Ebola, isolation means literal quarantine. The image conjured up by the word "isolation" today is that of a doctor suiting up like an astronaut with protective gear — gloves, a mask and goggles. To be isolated in the Ebola scare is to have show signs of infection, requiring physical separation from human beings. Failure to isolate oneself or others today spells trouble. Dr. Nancy Snyderman, NBC's chief medical editor and correspondent, had to apologize to the public for violating a voluntary isolation agreement after exposure to Ebola.

Isolation today is a tough sentence. If we overuse the word, someone may get tagged and have difficulty reentering a community for fear they remain infected. If we underuse it, someone may get sick. It will become increasingly important to "isolate" the victim — not everyone who has a cough.

Transmission: For many of us in the media profession, transmission has always meant a flow of information. We transmit ideas and news via satellite or radio. Communications relies on the transmission of signals and data. (For auto mechanics, the noun "transmission" has an entirely different meaning.) In these Ebola times, the focus is on the transmission of a virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is trying to explain transmission to a panic-filled public. Polls show that most people understand some, but not all, of the public information about Ebola and how it is transmitted — or not. Ebola, by definition, is a "filovirus," a viral infection leading to an often fatal disease, affecting humans and nonhuman primates, and transmitted through blood and bodily fluids. Those words are important as people ask about transmission in dogs and cats, from casual contact, hugging strangers, boarding airplanes or going into a clinic or hospital. Ebola is transmitted when a person has a high load of the virus at a high point of contagion. It is a distinction with a difference and needs constant explanation.

Risk: For those working at a hedge fund or an investment firm, "risk" is just part of everyday life. We bet; we encourage people to take risks. In the case of Ebola, officials are reminding the public of the importance of lowering the risk of the disease spreading and using an "abundance of caution." Lowering risk and being cautious in this epidemic is a good thing — as long as we keep reminding people that zero risk is impossible. By taking a very hard line at the start of the epidemic about the extremely low risk of anyone in the United States contracting Ebola, the CDC may have set the bar too low (or too high) and led people to believe there would not be a single case — or "outbreak."

Protocol: Protocols are essentially rules — agreed upon formats. (Ironically, we often hear about protocols for transmitting data between digital devices.)

Protocols are important when foreign guests visit a country. The State Department has an Office of Protocol to ensure that visiting dignitaries receive positive treatment in line with culture and social etiquette. Protocol, in the Ebola context, means rules about how to put on a hospital gown and "de-gown." Specialists are most concerned about "breaches" in protocol — that could mean a literal tear in a gown or violating rules about how to draw blood from a patient or carry waste from a hospital. People and institutions just need to follow protocols.

Burdened with meaning, words can hurt or help. As policymakers and public diplomats address Ebola, the word choice must be careful and consistent. In the days ahead, we have to choose language with care to avoid stereotypes, stigmas or scars that may worsen the situation for citizens and countries. It is easy to see how an entire nation can become a pariah — a place you can't fly in to — or out of. It is easy to imagine Africans stigmatized within Africa and outside it.

A wrong phrase can cause panic or fear. A fever is now an immediate cause for panic. Journalists, talk show guests, policymakers and public spokespeople will need to avoid sloppiness in language that could set off fire alarms in crowded theaters.

The Ebola crisis is going to test global sensitivity and response. This epidemic requires "care" in all forms of the word, including the caveat that all of us choose our words carefully.

Among the most important work ahead is transmission — the transmission of information — clear, consistent, calming and constant.

Sonenshine is former under secretary of State for public diplomacy and public affairs. She currently teaches at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs.