Public versus private

Sometimes a word has more than one meaning.

Australia 2006 948

I’m not talking about words that sound similar but have completely different meanings. Like:




are my favourite examples of those instances. I mean when a word has a different meaning to the reader or listener to the writer or person uttering the word. It’s all about the context.

A textbook case of context in the health system

I got a text asking if someone I knew was a secretary in a hospital. I replied yes she was, but that she wasn’t a public secretary. By public I meant she wasn’t a secretary sitting at a desk in a public area, dealing with the public. She was in a back room somewhere, I had gathered. So I got a reply asking could I find out if a certain doctor’s secretary was in work. The reply I got from my secretary contact was no. She had found out from the doctor’s public secretary that the doctor’s private secretary was off sick.

This put a total spin on the word public. If you’re in that industry the words public and private refer to payment systems not physical areas. Public is the public healthcare system and not a waiting room for example. Private is private paying clients rather than behind closed doors.

So if you’re writing up the home page of your tourist accommodation ‘famed for its colourful beds in the gardens’, just make sure that readers know it’s flower beds, not ‘bed beds’.