Posts Tagged 'Word obesity'

Making a crisis out of a drama

Richard M. Nixon said "Life is one crisis after another". Sort of depends whether you help to cover up a break-in at Democratic National HQ while you're president of the United States, but you see his point. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The first four words of the 2011 US debt ceiling crisis don’t imply immediate peril – its parent, the global financial crisis, has a much more virile name. But, as we found out last weekend, debt ceiling negotiations really can cause a crisis.

We like a good crisis; and they’re easier to live with if they’re just a problem dressed up in a dramatic news story. In the last week alone, a quick Googling reveals that Everton, the world’s biggest wave farm, the entire Isle of Wight, a lot of bees, the Hindley Residents’ Association, middle class marriages and The Poetry Society are also in crisis. As far as I know these are not all the same crisis, though if I was a proper blogger I’d at least find some way that they’re all linked to the World Trade Center Building 7 conspiracy crisis (I’m not providing a hyperlink to that one).

Also in the news this weekend the tiger population, Argentine football, the island of Cyprus, Spanish and Italian bonds, and fuel users in Norfolk are also at what we must now call crisis point, which means they should join the crisis queue in the next week. It’s not a great time if you’re a poetry-loving, Everton-supporting, middle-class married bee about to go on holiday to Cyprus, but at least the break means you won’t be worried sick about the Isle of Wight for a few days. You have enough on your nectar-laden plate, my stripy be-stinged friend.

I was always told not to make a drama out of a crisis, and the overwhelming number of non-crisis crises that we have created, recognised, or just announced so that we can fill inside news pages during the summer (I’m looking at you, residents of Hindley) means that poor old “drama” just can’t keep up, so that problem is solving itself. A Google Ngram (screenshot below) shows that the respective frequency of crisis and drama in literature was roughly equal until the 1960s. Then crises began to get more popular, while the level of reported drama stagnated.

In some ways, this is a pity, because calling something a “crisis” adds a level of almost military dignity to something that’s usually anything but dignified. For example, if we remodelled this weekend’s most popular crisis as the 2011 US Debt Ceiling Drama it would capture the flavour of hysterical soap-opera that some of the politicians involved seemed to relish. If we were stricter on what could be called a crisis, then we could also recategorise the rest of the non-crisis crises – based on impact, location and duration – and give them more accurate descriptions. I’d like two levels, one called palaver, and an even less serious one called kerfuffle; you are welcome to suggest your own.

Show me the remuneration

I know not everyone had wine but we're still five Euros short

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.

The enemy within

"Firmly grasp large-scale revolutionary criticism"

It’s not fair to blame everybody for the amount of crap that plugs up our inboxes. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a few people ruin it for the rest of us. This table of jargon that I compiled from 2009 press releases demonstrates it:

What’s can it mean? Read across the row. There’s a 3.7 per cent chance that a press release will use robust. But, if it also describes something as next generation, it is three times as likely (10 per cent) it will chuck in robust as well. And if it describes something as next generation and flexible, now there’s a 17 per cent chance you will find robust in there as well.

In short, the more jargon you use, the more you’re likely to use.

We get to the silly situation where, having described the product or service – or, I’m willing to wager, the solution – as next generation, flexible, robust, world class and scalable, more than a quarter of press releases chuck in easy to use as well.

I have three explanations why the press releases might need to call on “easy to use” in this situation:

1. It’s really important for sales: the company thinks that something which is next generation, flexible, robust, world class and scalable might sell badly because we worry that we won’t find the on switch.

2. Ease of use is not an obvious feature: if you can’t even write a press release that ordinary people can understand, it’s unlikely we will believe you can make a product that ordinary people can use.

3. Once I watched a TV report on how they used to typeset Mao-era Chinese communist newspapers. Because the Mandarin alphabet has a basic vocabulary of more than 3,000 characters it was easier for the typesetters to keep entire ready-made Cultural Revolution jargon phrases at hand, like the one at the top of the page, and just assemble the daily paper from the revolutionary brainwashing twaddle kit with a few names thrown in.

When we close our minds we tend to rely on empty, grandiose phrases to please authority. Of course in the West we’d never do anything like that, because here we are free to choose which words we use. Apparently.

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Pepsico management, enterprise databases and Nicole Kidman are like drunk Vikings. I think.

Which element of this picture is the enterprise database?

Enthusiastic Talknormaliser Marc alerted me to a tweet earlier this week from IDC:

jbozman It’s becoming very clear that enterprise apps and databases will be the “straw that stirs the drink” in the enterprise server refresh cycle.

I’m delighted to hear it. I just don’t really know what I’m hearing. I was worried that everyone else knows what being a straw that stirs a drink is and I didn’t, so when I started to type the phrase into Google, I was pleased that it immediately suggested, from previous searches, “what does the straw that stirs the drink mean?”. Educate us, bountiful internet:

The urban dictionary suggests that it is a term used to describe someone who is the life of the party, and suggests Party Viking as an alternative – which I like much more, as “databases will be the ‘Party Viking’ in the enterprise server refresh cycle” suggests your software is even now wearing a little plastic helmet with horns on it. It is stripped to the waist and barfing behind your data center’s sofa. I don’t think that’s what IDC means, but I wish it was.

The journal Strategy and Leadership has an article about Pepsico management, which uses the straw-drink analogy as its title. The abstract explains the process of being the straw that stirs the drink as: “Strategic Planning is clearly a line function at PepsiCo”. Clearly this concept is not all about Viking hats.

Over at eLearn University, I consulted “The Defining Moment: The Straw That Stirs The Drink Of Motivational Leadership” to learn that “There are three ways to transfer your motivation to others. Give them information, make sense…” and then I gave up before I got to how to tell the story of your Defining Moment, lacking as I was in motivation to finish the sentence. They tell you this at Leadership University? God knows what they teach at Leadership Remedial School.

And I also find also that, according to The Hidden Meaning of Birthdays by Nancy Arnott, Geminis are this type of straw – as long as they are Geminis who were born on 20 June. Think of the Party Vikings she suggests like Errol Flynn, er, Nicole Kidman or, um, Lionel Ritchie. According to Arnott, people born on this day are inevitably straws that stir drinks, which suggests a possible management fast-tracking strategy at Pepsico: get Ritchie in. He’ll kick ass All Night Long.

But back to the 20 June Geminis: “Expressing your passionate feelings tends to churn up strong emotions in those around you… every event at work and on the home front elicits a Richter-scale reaction from you,” she says; which sounds about as unlike Kidman or Ritchie as it’s possible to get.

But what do I know? I don’t even understand a phrase that can be variously used to describe acting like a Viking, the process of strategic planning at a multinational consumer packaged goods company, talking about yourself under the pretence that you’re inspiring people, exuding earth-trembling passion in the style of Nicole Kidman or, to bring us back to where we started, making it obvious to people that their old computers are too slow.

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It’s called a holiday


Scarborough: a commitment to integrating modern architecture that is perhaps most reminiscent of Barcelona.

Now that most people are mostly back in a country that mostly matches the one on their plane ticket, it’s time to strike an optimistic note about one other thing that didn’t fly last week: the attempt by holiday operator Thomson to popularise the phrase “awaycation” to describe a holiday overseas.

Thanks to Will Randall for showing me the press release, based on a survey by Opinion Matters. It needed someone to point it out to me, because afterwards I could count only four publications that wrote about it – and one of them only printed the word to make fun of it.

The awaycation is the latest shot in marketing’s tedious Buzzword Wars. Imagine, if you will, a group of dedicated marketers and PR people in early 2008, huddled into a meeting room, desperately trying to make the prospect of a week in Scarborough seem attractive to people who would prefer to take their leisure in Ibiza or Florida.

There’s a reason why we choose not to go on holiday to the same places that our parents visited. It’s broadly speaking because, compared to most popular destinations in the world, a British holiday is what travel experts call a bit crap. But call your holiday a staycation” and you’re not just eating overpriced jumbo haddock and chips while watching the drizzle, you’re part of a global economic trend. Also, it gives the travel section something to write about that isn’t holiday companies going down the tubes or how you’re only getting one Euro per Pound.

The tedious buzzword magic worked for the staycation marketers – seven uses of the word before January 2008, more than 4,000 since then –  so in 2010 Thomson, which owns 77 planes and even bought a Boeing 787, needed to work the same magic by describing something like a staycation which involves getting on a flight. Just don’t call it something boringly descriptive like a holiday abroad. It’s much better than that, it’s an awaycation!


This tedious rebirthing isn’t new, because there are so many reasons beyond inspiration-free desperation for marketers to do it. It might just be the self-importance that turns a personnel department into human resources. It might be a way to do an about-turn without making it look like you were wrong, which turns outsourcing into insourcing, rightsourcing or even upsourcing.

Or, sadly, it might be our need to see every event in our lives as a jolly project with a special name and a happy ending. Losing your job has always been a pain for you and an opportunity for buzzword manufacturers. In vogue at the moment: you’re apparently re-careering.

If you have expertise in inventing pointless words for marketing purposes but currently find yourself unavoidably re-careering, perhaps a job in an expanded Ministry of Euphemisms for Bad Things is on the cards. On the evidence of this election, trying to pretend that it’s OK really is one part of the public sector that has continued to expand in the recession. If we’re going to fight the Buzzword Wars, our troops need to have the right euphemisms. Sorry, I meant they need to be optimally resourced with appropriately context-sensitive descriptors. These meaningless government phrases don’t invent themselves, you know.

A quick search shows that even the mildly silly “re-careering” had a better run in the press than “awaycation” has, so far at least. I find this encouraging: we have discovered that it is possible to come up with a marketing buzzword that’s so obviously rubbish that everyone simply ignores it, like a bad smell.

Uniquely meaningless

HMS Unique: confusingly, one of 49 identical submarines

Ah! The irony. Dataram Corporation’s recent press release about measurable performance contains exactly two numbers. The first one is the information that Dataram Corp was founded 42 years ago. The second is that it was founded in 1967. So, to be strict, the press release has one number which is expressed in two different ways.

For each of those 42 years of precision measurement Dataram has apparently been:

delivering meaningful operational improvements and measurable total cost of ownership reductions… Dataram memory solutions have a track record of delivering significant performance and optimization improvements in critical applications.

I’d quote more, but then you’d have to kill yourself.

Trying to get useful information from this release, as with so many crappy self-congratulatory corporate web pages and marketing-driven white papers, is like banging your head against a giant marshmallow. It is vague wherever the precision of which Dataram boasts would be helpful. None of the many extravagant claims in the press release can be usefully understood: the company just speaks well of itself for a few hundred words. It describes operational improvements as meaningful, insight as unique, its applications as performance-driven, the performance itself as significant, its specialists as highly skilled (as opposed to all those generalist specialists out there). The result is a substantial performance improvement. It is, we read, a tremendous opportunity because performance (again) is high and the customer’s cost of ownership is substantially lower.

In other words, two paragraphs of bugger all, if that’s specific enough for you.

I write about this stuff and I have no idea what Dataram is doing here, or has been doing for 42 years, or how well it does it (is “meaningful” 10 per cent or 80 per cent? How low does something need to go before it becomes “substantially” lower?). I could read this tripe for 20 years (which sort of sums up my career so far) and still I’d have no idea.

Vague non-words like significant and substantial look like they’re telling us something, but they aren’t. They’re useful for people who have a deadline but no clear idea what they’re writing about; or people who know the numbers, don’t want to tell us what they are, but want to waste our time anyway because that’s what they’re paid to do. Often they are paid by the word, so chucking in a “substantial” here and there is basically free money.

On Factiva’s database of press releases there’s no clear trend upward or downward in the use of any of the non-words that Dataram employed to such non-effect. That would be too much to expect. Non-words have nowhere to live; so they just lie around in documents year after year, pretending to tell us something. For example, look at the graph of the use of significant and unique since 2002:

Nothing much to see there unless, of course, you are concerned that one in 12 press releases in the last eight years claims that something is unique. This seems to be setting the bar low for one-of-a-kindness.

There is, though, a worrying trend in the data. Since 2002 the frequency of press releases with just one of these annoying non-words remains roughly constant; but in 2009 you were three times as likely to find a release that claims all four of our meaningless words – that something is simultaneously significant and substantial and meaningful and unique:

Non-words are banding together to destroy our ability to think clearly. It’s literally a vague threat. Dataram’s press release is just one example of the wider problem that meaninglessness is becoming more concentrated, if such a thing is possible.

Going off on ongoing

Ongoingness: a perpetual motion machine. The wheel at the top writes the email, the twisty thing sends it, and the disc on the left reads it and sends a reply to everyone. This process carries on for ever.

When Rev. Philip Gulley was promoting his book “If the Church Were Christian” last year, he complained that the “ongoingness of the institution is all-important.” You could say the book is about the unfortunateness of the ongoingness of churchiness.

Even though ongoing has no reason to exist (telling me that there’s an ongoing discussion gives me no more information than telling me there’s a discussion, for example), it is getting more popular in the press.

It is routinely paired with other problem words to make them even more irritating than they were before: imagine that you’re about to deal a savage redundancies blow to Solihull. The first draft of your statement blames the redundancies on the problems of the economy, but that looks a bit strong. It may be true, it may be accurate, but it is not smooth and reassuring.

Perhaps in the second draft you rename “the economy” as “the current economic climate”, which sounds more reassuring already. You might also downgrade “problems” to “challenges”, but you need one more word that will knock the final hard edge off your statement.

Ongoing is that word. Bingo. A spokesperson for Fujitsu:

This has been necessitated by the ongoing challenges of the current economic climate and the resultant requirement for Fujitsu Telecommunications Europe to scale its operations in line with anticipated business volumes and mix.

Translation: we’re making 140 people redundant. With a weasel word as useful as ongoing, it’s hardly surprising that it is catching on:

But the real growth is found in pairing ongoing with words like challenge, as above. The phrase has increased in frequency by a factor of four since 2002:

Or in turning issues into ongoing issues, a phrase that is now five times as common as it was eight years ago:

There’s hardly a weasel word that you don’t find paired with ongoing. Ongoing is the Cliff Richard of weasel words: on its own, irritating yet pointless; in a duet, borderline dangerous.

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