I was doing some media training recently and one of the people in the session was told to stop speaking like she was trying to sound clever. This is good advice, if only more people would take it.
Instead we’re busy piling on the syllables like there’s no tomorrow, because why use a short word when there’s a long one that’s half as good?
Even the simplest words get bloated when we’re busy trying to sound clever. Here’s an example: you don’t get much simpler or more effective than the verb to use. We all know what it means, it’s perfectly clear, say it in a meeting and no one will misunderstand you or point at you and giggle and shout “durr!” because you’re simple.
But when we leave for work we take easy-to-understand “use” and stick an extra two syllables in it, and it becomes conference-room-hell-word “utilise”.
And it’s getting much worse, very quickly. Look at the Phillips Weasel Index (PWI) of the relative frequency of use and utilise (I included utilize, for our international readers) from 2002 to the end of 2009: the higher the graph goes, the more we are substituting “use” out of the language for “utilise” – a word that takes us longer to say and type, but we think it makes us sound like we’ve done an MBA:
As you can see, that’s a rise of more than 60 per cent in seven years. This PWI increase is consistent across technology, business, software, telecoms and media. The exception is for press releases, where there has been no rise in the PWI since 2002. Way to go, press release writers!
Actually, it just shows that you started writing badly earlier than the rest of us, and you continue to outperform. In 2002 you were about three-and-half-times as likely as a journalist to stick “utilise” instead of “use” in your paragraph in a misguided attempt to make your client sound clever, and now it’s down to a factor of about 2.3 as we catch up (or maybe put less effort into rewriting your releases). At this rate I worked out that the rest of us will be as bad as you by July 2022, which is something for our kids to look forward to.
I promised myself that I wouldn’t start obsessing over individual words like a crazy person who complains that the world isn’t what it used to be. Do too much of that and I’ll be the sort of person who listens to John Gaunt.
But it makes me cranky that we talk one way at home and a different way in the office to sound smart. It’s a word obesity epidemic , and 1 January 2010 might be a good time to go on a diet.