Justin Webb tweeted from Radio 4’s Today programme on Tuesday morning:
Can’t talk simple this am: pay becomes renumeration and softness emollience. coffee please
Several people tweeted while he was at the coffee machine to tell him that the word he was looking for was remuneration, but I sympathise with Justin. I didn’t realise that renumeration meant “counting something again”, and not “earned money”, until I was about 30 years old.
I still have trouble saying and typing the word. More embarrassing, I have similar problems with the word laboratory. It’s a good job I never worked for the chemistry press, or my peers would have split their sides when I asked questions at press conferences.
Justin and I are not alone with this remun/renum mix-up: journalists have used renumeration when they mean remuneration around 100 times a year for the last 10 years (You have no idea how long this blog is taking me to type). On 23 August, Chemical Week made the same error. Ha! Who’s laughing now, chemists? Wearing your white coats, reading your trade paper in your labra-, lobaro-, your places of work.
If you suffer because you can’t say or spell remuneration, I don’t care, because – unlike nucular – it’s a pointless word that doesn’t need our respect. It’s a classic case of word obesity. Take Justin’s advice and say pay instead: problem solved. Everyone understands what you mean and you don’t sound pompous. Both my 1965 edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage (I write as if I have copies from other years), and Essential English for Journalists agree.
If you decide to use “pay”, you’re not following the trend towards increasing word obesity. I made an index of the relative frequency of remuneration against pay (both in articles also containing the word job) from 2001 to 2009. The data is from articles published in North America and Europe:
The complicated word is twice as frequent as it was in 2001, but “pay” is almost unchanged in frequency. Most of the growth in use of renumer-, remuren-, that word has happened since 2007. Perhaps it is because we are rarely more than a day away from a story about what bankers are banking for themselves, and “pay” doesn’t seem grand enough for their piles of unearned income and bonuses.
Maybe the word we use to describe income should have at least as many letters as the income has digits, which means that only cleaners without visas and bloggers earn “pay” these days.
What about the rest of us? For Talknormalisers who want to feel special about pay, I’d suggest describing it as compensation. It’s still a pompous way to talk about money, but I like it because it sounds like they gave us the cash out of sympathy.