Posts Tagged 'Word obesity'



Operationalise with care

An early operation - homeopaths note: medical treatment like this can often seem more credible if you wear a funnel or a book on your head, or ask a nearby spiritual person to look concerned

I’ve just heard a politician state that his country was ready to “operationalise” a strategy, which obviously has consequences. Quite apart from anything else, a civil servant now has to draw up an operationalisation plan.

If civil servants are paid by the syllable, I can see the point in this. Otherwise, I’d like to helpfully point out – in the interests of public sector efficiency – that an operationalisation plan can also be described as “a plan”.

How far can we push this polysyllabilisationism? A bit further, it seems, but we’ll get to that. Operationalise is an excellent example of word obesity. It’s the vocab equivalent of stuffing a sock in your Y-fronts or padding your bra.

You can just keep stretching a word like “operate”. I took this word as a base to see how well we’re doing at stuffing it with extra syllables. Not surprisingly, useful extensions like operation and operational have more or less exactly the same long-term relative frequency, though operational is growing, maybe because it sounds macho:

Not much to see there. But let’s add the politician’s word that started all this: operationalise. To catch all the examples, I spelt it using both the -ise and -ize forms. This extension is getting much more popular. I’m guessing it is crowding out “put into operation”, which doesn’t make you sound important at all.

Just out of interest, I wondered if anyone had the nerve to commit a word like operationalisation to print and, I kid you not, there almost 400 examples of it in 2009 alone:

It’s becoming more popular, but not gaining in popularity as fast as operationalise. I think that’s for two reasons:

1. From the examples I could be bothered to read, there’s just no point to it; which is a disadvantage even for clever-sounding words

2. It’s just as hard to type as it is to say

Two good reasons to stop right here, but you know I can’t do that. On 29 October 2009, in the transcript of a Zygo Corporation earnings conference call, the world was introduced to the first ever recorded example of the word operationalizational in a business context. Nine syllables! I can’t help feeling that future historians will date some kind of decline from this moment, lamenting that a once great culture choked to death by gorging itself on its own syllables.

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Forward to the future

As MG Rover gradually coasted to a stop in 2003, Kevin Howe, the group chief executive of Phoenix Venture Holdings told the press that “Going forward we will remain focused on continuing to reverse the loss situation.” Howe had a grasp of gobbledygook that one doesn’t often see, even in a group chief executive – although, bearing in mind that he was speaking to an audience of motoring journalists, he really missed the opportunity to tell us all that he was looking for a gear change, that he was parking the problem, or that previous management had been asleep at the wheel. But overused car metaphors are a different blog: today I’m thinking about his decision to “go forward”, rather than in any other direction.
I searched Factiva for the phrase “going forward we…”. I added the “we” so that the results would omit the literal use of going forward – for example the results would leave out descriptions of footballers going forward on the pitch, but capture the waffle of the club’s directors going forward at the AGM.
It’s a regular and sustained increase, even when you break apart the five-year blocks I have used. Between 1980 and 1985 I could find only six uses of the phrase. Happy days.
“Going forward” is hogging the middle lane of what-to-do-next jargon. To show this, I grouped “going forward we” to its close relative “moving forward we”, as weasel phrases, and compared them to the two non-MBA phrases “in future we” and “from now on we”. We get a Phillips Weasel Index for the trend towards going forwardness. As the line rises, people are substituting “going/moving forward” for “in the future”/”from now on”:
Between 2002 and 2009 we became about 50 per cent more likely to do something going forward than to do it either “in the future” or “from now on”.
If we really want to be nitpickers – indulge me – then I can try to use my physics A Level. Here goes: when we treat time as a fourth dimension it has a property that breadth, depth and height don’t have. To use another motoring metaphor, time is a one-way street. In three dimensions you can go back and forth, up and down, left and right. In time you’re always heading from the past to the future. You are always going forward because, without Michael J. Fox’s DeLorean car (more motoring), you can’t go back.
So it’s a waste of breath when someone tells you that he or she is going to do something “going forward”. It is redundant, unnecessary, without a function, superfluous, not needed, no longer useful.
You could argue, using this logic, that “in the future” or “from now on” is equally redundant. A good point. On the other hand, only “going forward” is really, really irritating.

Keep taking the revolutionary tablets

Talking Carl: hero of the revolution

As we put our feet up and mix the first martini of the weekend, we turn our thoughts to what the next week has in store for us. If you’ve been reading the blogs you’ll know that we are on the verge of a revolution. Thanks to Apple’s tablet computer nothing will ever be the same ever again, except for the 10 million people in the UK who have never used the internet, the one third of Europeans who haven’t either, or the 4 billion people in the world who’ve never even used a phone (let alone used one to download an app to tell them where the nearest sushi bar is). But, in the developed world, we organise our revolutions around the availability of consumer electronics these days.

I thought I’d look into how good Apple and Microsoft have been at getting us to mount the barricades for their respective revolutions.

The first chart shows how well, over the last 10 years, the companies have been doing at converting claims that they are revolutionary into news stories that agree with the premise. I restricted this to technology news in newspapers. The line zigs about a bit, but as you can see Microsoft wasn’t making much headway until last year. Windows 7 seems to have got journalists a bit excited – although the line shoots up mostly because there were far fewer Microsoft press releases claiming a revolution than there were in 2008 (when it did nothing particularly revolutionary at all, but was twice as likely to claim that it did).

The second chart takes claims for revolution in any year and subtracts Microsoft’s coverage from Apple’s. If the dot is in the top half of the graph, Apple is winning. In the bottom half, it’s Microsoft. It shows that while journalists are more comfortable saying that Apple was starting a revolution (purple line: top half for the whole decade), Apple’s PR too (orange line) is becoming increasingly comfortable with this particular example of meaningless hyperbole. At the beginning of the decade Apple almost never claimed to be revolutionary. Now, perhaps encouraged by the willingness of journalists to pass on the message, it is three times as likely as Microsoft to claim its products are revolutionary.

In the interests of full disclosure, I’m typing this on my iMac while syncing iTunes with my iPhone. I just paid 59p for an iPhone app that displays the little red fella at the top of the post (he’s called Carl). In its own way this app is revolutionary: when I say things to my phone such as “Only an educated and productive people can be truly free,” or “Not a grain of sand will we yield to imperialism,” Carl says it back to me in a cartoon voice while waving his little fist. You can also tickle him.

I’m sure that in the old days we would wait until we had actually seen the product before we decided that something was going to cause a revolution (The Segway, of course, was an exception). Meanwhile if the breathless anticipation of Apple’s iThing continues in the press, Microsoft’s going to spend another year being less revolutionary than Apple. Maybe that’s what happens when you’ve been the status quo for ever.

How the game-changing game has changed for game-changers

It comes to my notice that Google has launched a phone. But not just any old phone: Google has launched a game-changing phone. I’m not sure that anyone has explained to me the specific game that mobile phone companies are playing (though if my recent experience with Orange Mobile Broadband is any guide, one version of the rules is called Shaft The Customer), but 147 articles in the telecommunications press recently have decribed Google as changing some game or other.

This is, lest we forget, after Apple has already changed the same game. The 249 articles which describe Apple in the same way peaked in 2007, so we must assume in this case that Google is re-re-changing the game that Apple re-changed after Nokia changed it after someone else invented it. Or something like that.

When we look at telecommunications in general, few games have been left unchanged in the last two or three years. Around 2002 or 2003 it was very unusual to find anything in the telecommunications press that claimed to change any game at all. We had 30 times as many game-changers in 2009, compared to what we would have expected had game-changingness remained at 2002 levels:

It isn’t just telecommunications in which companies are claiming to have altered the game as soon as the previous permutation of the earlier mutation of the last modification has taken effect. Here’s the trend in the business press, where we find companies that change games about half as frequently, but with a similar upward trend. In 2009 we got only about 20 times as much game-changingness as we would have expected, taking 2002 as our base:

Part of this is journalistic over-stimulation: the increasing resemblance of business reporting to a Mexican soap opera. So given that some reporters are willing to write up the opening of a jar of pickle as potentially game-changing, marketers are helping by using the term game-changing to play the most important media game of all: the game of Pump Up What Your Employer Does To Make It Sound More Important Than Selling A Product. You might say that their use of game-changing has, in itself, been game-changing. If you wanted me to slap you, that is.

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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