An epidemic of word obesity

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.

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3 Responses to “An epidemic of word obesity”


  1. 1 Brett Hetherington December 9, 2009 at 7:44 pm

    Showy-offy language is like that slimy sensation on the roof of your mouth that comes from eating cheap pastry.

    And we know that crappy food makes you fat but poncey language that reeks of wankery is mutton dressed up as caviar.

    I just wish that plain speak and plain talk was valued. I am a writer and teacher who works in education and I try to avoid using educational buzz words but there is a fair bit of pressure to write in a certain way when we communicate with parents.

    The problem is that a lot of bloated language comes from dishonest motives. And mainstream media are some of the worst at it, as I give some examples of in this blog:

    http://www.bretthetherington.net/Modules/Blog/Pages/BlogEntry.aspx?BlogEntryId=398

  2. 2 Kate Greenwood December 9, 2009 at 9:37 pm

    Tim, you are a very complicated man! As a woman of 1 metre something in height, does that mean that I can only see part of the painting in the barchart when I am standing up?

    At least weasels… no matter what side you think they are on.. still stay in the scene and annoy the ….. out of the good kindly folk that like to observe, comment, pass judgement and support the unfortunately involved with the Weasels with a chuckle and deary me… I love Christmas.. roll on the TV program!


  1. 1 It’s not big and it’s not clever – how to avoid corporatespeak — Bad Language Trackback on January 14, 2010 at 10:05 am

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