Our highly popular post ‘can we have an i-conversation about words that get your goat?’ has a new follow-up by the same author. It doesn’t hold back and is a cracker. Enjoy…
by Louise Powney
Does your copy need to be a bit snazzier? It’s probably already humming with buzzwords but sometimes that tired old noun just doesn’t hit the spot. You need to jazz it up a bit so the plebs really get on board with your key message and are compelled by that narrative.
But just like Tony Blair banging on about “education, education, education,” the more you say something the more meaningless it seems to be. To avoid this fate, find below half a dozen adjectives and adverbs that have become so diluted they’re like Robinsons lemon barley water sloshed into a plastic beaker at a 1980s school fête:
Whenever this bad boy pops up it’s a cast-iron giveaway that something is chronically overwritten.
“We are actively working with…”, “We are actively looking for…” blah-di-blah-di-blah. How do you inactively look for something? Lie on the floor whilst only using your peripheral vision? Even five-year-old children can grasp that a verb is already a “doing” word. Think about that the next time you’re actively cranking out some copy.
Isn’t it amazing how ruddy amazing everything is these days? Every event has an amazing atmosphere! Anyone who hauls their sorry carcass around a 5k is amazing! Sandwiches are amaaaaazing! This word is now so devalued that the only thing that would truly amaze me would be the Second Coming; unless Jesus himself is strolling through the door, I’m not amazed. End of.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the rot set in with this one, as with so much else in western civilisation, in 1970s America (disco excepted), and essentially means the complete opposite of how it is now generally used.
Alas, awe no longer describes the feeling of staggering through the storm-lashed Highlands being chafed to pieces by your soggy tweed outfit, but instead is used by Serena Williams to convey how her opponent played when she is attempting (and completely failing) to be magnanimous in triumph. Or by a council that wants to big-up a summer play scheme.
Stuff in museums and art galleries is curated. That’s it. Stop using it to mean chosen. It means to look after or preserve.
The need to be inspirational is a relentless pressure now tightening its grip on all areas of communications.
These days, it’s not enough to be informative, interesting, or even a bit funny in comms. No. You have to get all and sundry bouncing out of their chairs and punching the air, maybe even having a bit of a cry. They’re going to be falling over themselves to answer that call to action if it’s the last thing you do goddammit!
The easiest way around this, as usual, is to explicitly describe something that isn’t at all inspirational as inspirational and it will automatically become just that. *poof*
Unusually, it is possible to pin point exactly when this horror started. I fantasise about hunting down and maiming whoever came up with “inspire a generation.” Like releasing anthrax through the air conditioning vents of a shopping centre, this noxious whimsy spread from London to Rio and will no doubt waft across the Pacific to Tokyo in 2020. It is the cockroach of key messages; stamping on it just spreads the horror further across the carpet.
As a side note, if you’re doing media training with someone remember that no woman in the public eye is allowed to open her mouth unless she is “inspiring other women.” And if she isn’t, Twitter is going to let her know about it. You’ve been warned.
The passive-aggressive insincerity that seeps from this word is staggering. Avoid at all costs.
Businesses love to trumpet that they’re “passionate about great customer service.” You run a chain of shops, you should be, it’s supposed to be an intractable part of your remit. “We’re passionate about great food”. You run a café what else would you be passionate about? Serving pig swill?
To steal an axiom from the suffragettes (a group who knew all about proper passion), there is only one thing to say to organisations that proudly declaim to be passionate: deeds not words.
Louise Powney is a communications officer in local government
Image via Flickr Creative Commons