In June 2009 the number of words in the English language hit 1,000,000. In 2010 another 33,322 were added. I feel pretty sure that a great many should have been jettisoned. This post is all about words.
Here are some…
“. . . invents puzzles out of nonsequiturs to seek congruence in seemingly incongruous situations, whether visual or spatial . . . inhabits those interstitial spaces between understanding and confusion.”
Did you get any of that? Don’t worry neither did I. It is from a Whitney Biennial exhibition programme. It goes on…
“In voicing the void, Kapoor returns us to the discourse of the diagonal. How does the transitional nature of true making—spatially out of balance, temporally in between—relate to the myth of ‘originality’?”
The above, by Homi K Bhabha on the artist Anish Kapoor, was awarded first prize in the Philosophy and LiteratureBad Writing Contest and well deserved too.
This example of art/philosophical gobbledegook is just one of many areas where incomprehensibility is the order of the day. The name of the game is to keep the layperson well at bay by using obscure, complex and often invented words to isolate them behind a linguistic barrier.
The veteran interviewer and journalist John Humphries has long campaigned against the use of corporate speak with its, Synergy, Going forward, Strategically targeting,connecting ear-to-ear, Leveraging, Touching base, Customer centric etc, etc, in his excellent book Lost for Words: The Mangling and Manipulating of the English Language – really worth a read.
The granddaddy of gobbledygook has to be Legalese - an English term first used in early 20th century for legal writing. A prose style intended to be difficult for mere laymen to comprehend, the implication being that its abstruseness is intentional in order to shut out the legally untrained and for justifying the excessively high fees. Believe me I know this to be true. Don’t get divorced – especially twice. I never did get the hang of the Applicant or the Respondent. All this got me thinking about other professions who hide behind this verbal subdiffusion.
Having recently had to undergo a procedure in hospital - don’t get me wrong the medical profession are wonderful, but the language they use is completely anti-patient. It is bad enough having to go into hospital. First you have to endure dehumanizing effect of a bum revealing gown followed by an onslaught of alienating lingo e.g. Oncology (cancer), Paediatrics (children) Geriatric (elderly), Neurology (brain), Cardiology (heart) etc. The list is endless and disturbing.
You may recall a few years ago that a Paediatrician was hounded by a hostile bunch of (admittedly thick) residents who had mistakenly taken his professional name to mean ‘paedophile’. Would that have happened had he simply been called a children’s doctor? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the BMA decide to revolutionise their archaic terminology in favour of the patient (sorry I think the hospital management side prefer the term customer these days). We all know they never will as it would be well, too understandable, and we can’t have that.
Recently the FT business journalist Lucy Kellaway had a wonderful rant about bad copy writing in the technology world. She sighted Microsoft’s abysmal jargon riddled copy when introducing their new browser software.
“…delivers a richer, faster, and more business-ready Web experience. Architected to run HTML 5, the beta enables developers to utilise standardised mark-up language across multiple browsers”.
But Kellaway did single out Apple for their clear and witty use of language in the set of guidelines written for their apps sold at the App Store.
“We have over 250,000 apps in the App Store. We don’t need any more Fart apps. If your app doesn’t do something useful or provide some form of lasting entertainment, it may not be accepted.”
Simple, understandable, direct and witty. Why can’t all copy be like that? That’s why I’m Mac and not PC.
Innocent drinks is another a company who not only take care with their writing but positively delight when talking to their customers. They have made sterling efforts to be jargon free in all of their well-chosen words. From bottle and carton labels to TV and print advertisements and shareholder reports.
Now that's the way to talk to people
Even their Annual General Meetings seem very human. You can watch one at the end of this post.
When I worked in publishing during the late 60’s and 70’s we still called books, well, good old books. And authors where just authors. Now books are units and authors brands.
Just the other day I heard a schoolteacher describing to her pupils efforts as ‘up skilling’ for the future. And even our gas bills are littered with jargon like calorific value and normal primary units.
But what has depressed me most in recent years is way this verbiage has insidiously woven its way in my own profession, the world of design. Not only do design companies now have strategy directors, planners, project managers, client facing managers, new business development directors etc but we have to put up with a new and quiet ridiculous language - customer focused, strategically targeted, leveraging client potential, brand enhancing,refreshing,Future proofing,blah de blah de blah. You can no longer just have print items, it now has to be print collateral. It is worthwhile browsing the websites of design groups to read the utter tripe they use to describe themselves and their services. It is very revealing.
I think you need a little break. Watch this 6 min TED talk by Alan Siegel.
It is inevitable for a young design group to want to expand and grow into a mature group (consultancy). When that happens the original DIY hand to mouth spirit tends to change and with it goes the friendly often-witty and human language used. The founders quietly move into his or her own office and those once spontaneous meetings tend to stop. Email is used more, even if the person being addressed is only 2 meters away. Things become increasingly impersonal. The camaraderie fades along with the urgent passion for true innovation, giving way to the search for ‘serious’ corporate work. It is usually a downhill path from there.
Suddenly you notice that there are more organisers than designers. Where did they come from? Designers are removed from the client presentation process. The principles no longer fight the battles, instead they empower others to do their bidding and cowardly hide in their offices in the misguided belief that they are thought of as important.
My point is that all this jargon is inhuman and is used to hood wink clients and to promote a sense of pseudo importance within companies. Direct, open and most of all understandable language says a lot about a company and its people.
So if your boss emails you to attend a Blue Skyconcept meeting or they are far keener on entering the DBA’s Design Effectiveness Awards than D&AD you’ll know it’s time to think about moving on, sorry moving forward.
A lone figure sits at a table in a dimly lit room. Cigarette in hand, he begins to write. “Why I’m quitting tobacco”. This is a pivotal scene from last week’s Mad Men in which maverick adman, Don Draper makes an audacious attempt to save his crumbling agency by writing a manifesto advertisement on the perils of tobacco and why his agency will no longer work for tobacco companies.
The ad duly runs in the next day’s edition of The New York Times. Everyone at Stirling Cooper Draper Price is shocked and horrified in equal measures. Don’s partners huddle together and berate him for his foolhardy actions. He squares up to them, cigarette in mouth and says, “...someone had to do something.” Thus carving out a heroic figure for himself in their hour of need. Will it work? We’ll see what happens in the next and final episode of this series.
Anyway I was fascinated by the authenticity of the ad in both appearance and content. Here is the layout…
Note the typography. The simple directness of Frankin and News Gothic is perfectly pitched for the period and the type of work that Draper wants to produce. This is what I love about Mad Men, the dogged attention to detail.
Agency manifesto ads became an effective way for agencies to set out their stall to potential clients, especially when the economic climate was dipping or when launching a new agency.
Here is a beautifully written manifesto ad from New York based Doyle Dane and Bernbach...
The agency, with Bill Bernbach at the helm, that changed the face of advertising forever.
This direct conversational style was the benchmark of DDB copywriting which penned the legendary ‘Think small’ VW ad. The DDB style was embraced and emulated wholeheartedly by many British agencies, spearheaded by Collett Dickenson Pearce in the late 60’s. The doyen of this concise, crafted style of prose in the UK was David Abbott - who actually worked at DDB in his early days. If you haven’t read my account of him you can find it here.