“Terrorist.” The first time I remember hearing the word, I was 12. It was 1995, and the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City had just been bombed. For many years after, whenever I heard the word terrorist, I pictured a shady white man in a hooded sweatshirt and sunglasses. Following the tragedy of the World Trade Center attack, that picture changed and I saw not one man, but many, all dark-skinned and faceless. This new image did not come from a dictionary, but from the media. I realized that the way the word was used in the TV I watched and the newspapers I read changed the meaning of that word forever.

That’s why I was not surprised when, in September 2004, Reuters criticized CanWest Global Communications Corp. for misuse of the word “terrorist.” It accused CanWest of adding the word into Reuters’s news copy, thereby adding a negative slant to stories regarding the war in Iraq. CanWest defended its use of the word, saying that it had the right to edit news copy to fit its publication.

When it comes to word choice, journalists are responsible not only to their dictionaries, but also to the experiences and emotions of their readers. In a country as diverse as Canada, journalists must often report on issues dealing with a wide range of cultural and religious backgrounds. It is not enough to write from assumptions. In reporting that deals with sensitive issues, what journalists don’t know can hurt others.

Below are five words commonly used in news and popular culture. As well as their literal meaning, each has religious and historical connotations that can mean a world of difference to the reader. When used properly, they can be powerful and provocative. Use one of these words incorrectly, however, and risk damaging your reputation and insulting your reader.

Fundamentalist \ fun’da-men’tal-ist \ n. a movement or attitude stressing strict or literal adherence to a set of basic principles.

Canadian media often use the word “fundamentalist” as a synonym for “extremist,” to describe any religious group that has acted out, caused trouble, or hurt others. One example of this can be found in the Vancouver Sun, where the term was used to describe one sect of Sikhism that was causing political and social disorder.

Manjit Singh is a member of the Canadian Sikh Council and professor of Sikhism at McGill University in Montreal. He explains that, not only was it incorrect to use the word “fundamental” to describe the Vancouver-based community, it is not even possible to use the term to differentiate between Sikh sects.

“The majority of journalists do not have an adequate understanding of Sikhism, so they just tend to apply what terminology they can get,” says Singh. “The teachings of Sikhism are such that if a person is following them then that person cannot be called a fundamentalist. The teachings are very clear and there is no scope for that sort of different interpretation.”

Guru \ gu-ru \ n. a personal religious teacher and spiritual guide.

In October 2004, Chatelaine magazine prompted women to discover a gardening guru. The year before, it offered advice for readers by providing an online health and wellness guru. In the Sikh tradition, where the word originates, a guru is much more than a health advisor, or an expert on shrubs. In Sikhism, where the word “Sikh” literally translates to “student,” the word “guru” means “teacher.” According to The Centre for Faith and The Media, a Calgary-based organization designed to educate journalists on issues of religion, in the Sikh faith, a “relationship to the Guru – taken in full seriousness – makes one a ?student of the eternal’.”

“Guru is the word for teacher, but also is the word used for the creator, depending on what sense in which someone is using it,” says Singh. “You have to know the context in order to say whether the person means teacher or the Almighty.”

Jihad ji-had \ n. a holy war waged on behalf of Islam as a religious duty.

The Centre for Faith and The Media says, “There is no term in Islam that is so misused or abused as jihad.” In its Journalists’ Guide to Islam, the organization explains that it does not literally mean “holy war,” but rather “to struggle or strive for a better way of life.”

Michelle Hartman, a professor of Islam at McGill, explains that while “holy war” is one interpretation of jihad, it does not encompass the entire term.

“Every Muslim is meant to jihad – to strive to be a better Muslim,” Hartman says, “But people do that in different ways. Some donate money, and some go and try to do something positive in the world. The important thing to keep in mind is that it is a big concept with diverse set of meanings. One of those is war and violence. That’s not the primary meaning – it’s only one – but it’s the one that has gotten the most attention.”

Mecca \ mec-ca \ n. a place regarded as a centre for a specified group, activity, or interest.

While the dictionary allows Mecca to be used for a variety of locations, Muslims define Mecca as only one place – the holiest city in Islam. All prayers said by Muslims must be said while facing Mecca, and each capable Muslim has a duty to make a pilgrimage to the Saudi Arabian city to pray in its sacred mosque.

Because of the emphasis put on the city of Mecca by the Islamic faith, the word Mecca developed as a metaphor for “place of utmost holiness,” or “ultimate goal.” While it may not seem derogatory to use the word in this manner, it can become offensive when used to describe places or activities that are against Muslim doctrine. For instance, referring to Las Vegas as the “Mecca of gambling” can be offensive to someone of Islamic faith, for whom gambling is a serious sin.

Nirvana nir-va-na \ n. a place or state of oblivion to care, pain, or external reality.

Nirvana, a term from the Buddhist religion, literally means without (nir) flame (vana). While popular culture has understood the basic meaning of nirvana, which is the state of ultimate bliss or cessation of suffering, it has ignored the implications of the path one must take to reach nirvana, a path that to Buddhists is seen as rigorous and disciplined.

“Nirvana is used in a way that is trying to evoke similar feelings of what the tradition is trying to evoke,” says Dr. Ellen Goldberg, a professor of Buddhism at Queen’s University in Kingston. “But the path to attain that is quite different. The path is in fact quite complex and involved.”

“I don’t think our popular culture has a clear understanding of the implications,” says Goldberg. “It’s like using Buddhist monks to sell a cake. It is anti-theoretical to what the faith has promoted in the last 500 years.”