Monthly Archives: October, 2011

Anybody here speak Gloopish?

  • Service sectors customarily inform each scope of needs with specific reference to the role of gloop frameworks
  • Empowerment of stakeholders means interfoggle differentials, commensurate with an equitable consumption of services
  • Due consideration is usually given to impacting the merits of social capital versus cost-benefit vis-à-vis beneficial spillover effects
  • Gloopity-gloop flop floppy globule

Leaving aside the last one, have I played with the preceding sentences much to reduce them to nonsense? Apart from adding silly words, I’ve made only one noun and one adjective change to these sentences from a 2010 Australian Federal Government report. With most other forms of writing, it would be possible to discern the original intent. Not here. Gloopity-gloop indeed.

To be fair, there are worse offenders buzz-wording around the English-speaking world. Some notable examples are singled out for attention in a trio of books by author and former speechwriter Don Watson (Death Sentence, Dictionary of Weasel Words, and Bendable Learnings). These volumes offer brilliant but scary analysis. Impacting outcomes, anyone?

I say ‘English-speaking world,’ but does this argot even count as English? I think Gibberish might be closer to the mark, or Gloopish. And it’s becoming the unofficial second language of many organisations.

In recent weeks I’ve been hearing about ‘harmonisation’ between state and federal governments. Does this mean burying their territorial hatchets? Does it mean political peace in our time? Does it mean more efficient delivery of services and a happier citizenry? Nope. It’s just code for compliance. To be more specific, this ‘harmonisation’ is nothing more than bureaucracies agreeing on common standards between jurisdictions. The word is pure Yes, Minister. One state government intends to ‘harmonise’ (i.e. ape) procedures of another, so long as their federal counterparts toe the line on provisions A and B of Schedule Q as pertaining to the aforementioned de-sexing of chickens or the straightness of bananas or the bodily searching of nuns for Jesuitical symbols. O, what music of the spheres. Mozart would delight in such harmony.

Another bit of Gloopish I’ve heard lately is the verb ‘to toolbox’. There’s a lack of unanimity about the precise meaning of this term but the most plausible explanation is a synonym for ‘problem solving,’ which used to be known as ‘workshopping’ or ‘blue-skying’ or—with a palpable lack of irony at using the term—‘group thinking’. I prefer the old-fashioned word ‘thinking’. But perhaps that’s not ‘hands-on’ enough for ‘playmakers,’ ‘can-do’ leaders and ‘closers’. I think the toolbox has been left in the hands of tools rather than carpenters.

In many ways Gloopish is anti-language, inimical to thought, and—not by accident—lacking a responsible agent. That’s why so often the hapless employee is asked by his or her managing director or political representative to ‘take ownership’ of plans and actions. In other words, if things go badly (sorry, I mean ‘pear-shaped’) the speaker isn’t responsible. Weren’t we warned that the ownership baton was being passed to us?

I have a low pain threshold for buzzwords (and non-words) such as ‘agreeance’ and ‘learnings,’ and even a few mispronunciations such as ‘renumeration’ and ‘re-pore’ (for ‘rapport’). I draw the proverbial at letting a word like ‘synergy’ pass my lips. This is the first time I’ve ever typed it. I will never ask anyone to ‘think outside the box,’ ‘pick the low hanging fruit’ or tell them to ‘value-add’ or ‘risk-take’. I refuse to push any envelopes, fling open windows of opportunity or describe any idea as having legs.

In other words I will not speak Gloopish. I will not speak it in a train. I will not speak it in a plane. I do not like it, Sam-I-am. It does not improve anyone’s understanding; quite the opposite. Gloopish will cloud specifics in safe stock phrases full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

So stakeholders and knowledge managers, have we ticked all the boxes of an ongoing agreement situation?

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Strike me pink

Pink

Today when we use the phrase a ‘person of colour’ we mean someone with non-European skin tones. But the phrase ‘coloured person’ (now universally regarded as an offensive term) was at one time a euphemism for ‘negro’ in the USA; while in countries, such as South Africa, it indicated someone of non-African and non-European appearance. We know this is nonsense, as ‘white’ people aren’t white, and even albinos have a pink tinge. Everyone is coloured. Those of us with paler skin often show our colour changes more readily, with flushing, sun-tanning or burning: but anybody can turn blue, no matter how much melanin we have, when sufficiently deprived of oxygen. Strike me pink, ‘coloured’ is a strange word for differentiating people.

And it’s odd how we sprinkle our language with colours, even to the extent of extending the colour metaphor into the meta-metaphor ‘colourful language’. There’s only one colour we mean when we use that phrase: a euphemism for blue. Is there red language? Is there gold language? Such an odd use of the paint palette. What is intrinsically ‘blue’ about swear words or an obscene joke? One possible explanation: in olden days when a glimpse of stocking or something shocking caught the eye of censors, those guardians of virtue would use blue-coloured pencils to strike out words that might offend. That makes historical sense at least: coloured, and therefore blue, language may get its colour tag from that time.

But what about other coloured words? Blue (the colour, not the pop group) is a multi-talented performer. For example: if I have a blue with a blueblood, screaming till I’m blue in the face, and then make a real blue of forgiving him, will I get the blues? For my offence I might be blacklisted, or I might give the other party some black looks. ‘Blueblood’ at least has a historical basis, relating to melanin again. Pallid tones of European royalty supposedly allowed their subjects a clear view of the royal veins, which shone blue
through the royal person’s pale skin. That didn’t mean that someone born to the ‘purple’ (Roman royalty origin) would be well endowed with ‘grey matter’. Often these royals were (and are?) as thick as two short people planking; while at the bottom of the social pecking order, a man without a red cent (they used to be made of copper) could be a blue-eyed boy if he was good as gold.

As for suffering the blues (from ‘blue devils,’ a version of ‘black dog,’ i.e. depression) or having a blue with the missus (Australian slang, perhaps something to do with shouting until one is oxygen-deprived or possibly ‘black and blue’ from bruising – what we would now call ‘domestic violence’) or making a blue (i.e. a mistake, perhaps ‘blue pencil’ thinking again) this only adds to the colour confusion for students of English. So many colour idioms, so little time to learn them.

As for matters of race, let’s move away from black and white (but not very far). Can you tell my skin colour if I describe myself as a redneck? Poor white farmers in the US were often sunburnt from toiling away at manual labour. Later the supposedly ultra-conservative values of these folk, near (but not quite) the bottom of the social pecking order, would be
associated with the working-class sunburn above a workman’s shirt collar (blue, not white). But today can a ‘person of colour’ espouse redneck values? Of course. Do their necks turn red? Some, but not all. Plenty of white-collar workers have redneck values, while blue-collar folk may deplore such values: some of these folk may even be greens. It’s a mixed colour chart, as it’s getting harder to tell what someone does for a living based on his or her collar colour. This is hardly a ‘red letter day’ (from illustrated Biblical
manuscripts) for ‘white’ supremacists or brown-shirts (Nazi) but those opposing
such opinions might continue to see red or at least feel browned off.

Students of English, confused? What if I were tell you a white lie about painting the town red and then I got caught red-handed? Would it be a red rag to a bull? Or might I be flying the white flag? If I kept quiet, would I be yellow or just green, or a true blue? I might feel in the pink. Or is all this a red herring? I might be delving into ‘black’ humour?

More rhetorical questions. If the Dead Sea is dead, why isn’t the Red Sea red? Why is red tape not green or purple? Why aren’t blueprints blue (they used to be)? Why aren’t black boxes black? When is a government white paper not white? Why isn’t white wine white? And why are white elephants neither white nor elephants (ask the King of Siam that one)? Some of these have a historical basis; others remain a linguistic mystery. Some arrive out
of the blue, while others receive the etymological red carpet treatment. I could scream blue murder, turn green with envy or feel tickled pink.

Or I could end with some blue language: n*vy, cya@, $qua, az&&e, sapph%%%, turqu##se, lap+s lazul+, c@balt, ~ndigo. Hope I haven’t offended anyone. If I could find a blue pencil…

Disposition of the preposition

Preposition

Does it really matter? Will civilisation collapse if we’re loose with the use of a few prepositions?

No, it hardly counts when measured against Third World debt, cholera or global warming. It doesn’t even rate against other threats to clear communication, such as all-pervasive management-speak, politically motivated euphemisms and the dead hand of cliche.

But preposition truancy does matter to some readers, for whom it’s a little more serious than you say ‘tomahto’ and I say ‘tomayto’. In written form, at least, loose use of the preposition has potential to niggle even those of us with a relaxed attitude to grammar and syntax. Lately I’ve been wondering–not worrying–about that. Could my increased tolerance be attributed to frequent toggling between British English and American English?

Of course you’ve noticed the prepositional disparity. Some people say ‘write me’ while others say ‘write to me’? Do you say  ‘Monday to Friday’ or ‘Monday through Friday’? Do you play on a team or in a team? Is your favourite shop/store located in a street or on a street? Do you ring someone on their phone number or at their phone number? Is your political representative a Senator from Illinois or an MP for Lalor? Do you ever jump off of something or only jump off? Do you ever find something in back of or only behind?

Setting aside cultural and regional variations of English, let’s consider why a cluster of prepositions may irritate. The best known—and extreme—examples are these two: ‘Mother, what did you bring that book that I don’t like to be read to out of up for?’ ‘What did you turn your socks from inside out to outside in for?’ Even the most tolerant editor, teacher or reader could be driven crazy by such confusion.

But there are less obvious misdemeanours. For example, do you ‘turn up’ or do you just arrive? Do you ‘stand up’ or just stand? Do you ‘sit down’ or just sit? Do you ‘end up doing’ a task or just do it? Have you ever ‘stared someone down’? If so, down where? Have you ever ‘reached out to’ someone or ‘reached up to’ something? Sure, the prepositional use in these examples indicates a conversational or informal tone. No harm done. Problems are more likely to arise when informality strays into our e-mails and infects more official writing. If abused, compound prepositions have the potential to cloud meaning.

Consider the following examples: ‘apart from,’ ‘because of,’ ‘in accordance with,’ ‘owing to,’ ‘in spite of,’ ‘by means of,’ ‘near to,’ ‘acquainted with,’ ‘addicted to,’ ‘consistent with,’ ‘fond of,’ ‘grateful for,’ ‘interfere with,’ ‘take advantage of,’ ‘worry about,’ ‘object to,’ ‘reason with,’ ‘deal with’. When I hear these in conversation I barely notice—and I’m a word worrier—but when compound prepositions crop up in writing (there’s one), especially formal writing, they can grate on my inner ear.

For example, why do we ‘meet with’ or ‘meet up with’ someone? I often see this in reports. Does ‘meet up with’ sound more official or impressive than just meeting? Is it a Meeting rather than a mere meeting? Sure, this is hardly the end of civilised discourse as we know it but I can blur reader clarity if I report on meeting up with the head of an organisation I used to be part of in hope of making a deal on behalf of people I’m acquainted with from the sector that job was part of. Count the compound prepositions. Count the number of compounds of prepositions in the body of that sentence, or this next one. Awareness of correct usage is the duty of all of the readers in the entirety of the public sphere. Superfluous ‘ofs’ and ‘ins’ obscure sense. They soften the lens without flattering.

And do I dare end a sentence with a preposition? Sure, if I want to. Who gives a tinker’s cuss? John Dryden gave us this faux rule and we owe him no thanks: compound prepositions are far more toxic. I suspect that if they bother me, they bother some other people. Winston Churchill once wrote a witty marginal comment laced with irony: ‘This is the sort of English up with which I will not put’ (though the great man is also  alleged to have written ‘This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put’). At once he obliged and (in my opinion) satirised the preposition-sentence sticklers. Was it accidental that he used a compound preposition far uglier and more cumbersome than the grammatical solecism he was supposedly avoiding?

So apart from, or because of, such usages, and in accordance with or perhaps owing to the excesses of prepositional use, I find that in spite of their best efforts to write clearly, some writers have, by means of the compound preposition, come near to incomprehensibility (sound like any politicans you know?).

But now that you’re acquainted with, and possibly addicted to, noticing these usages, consistent with the tone of this blog, which of course you’re fond of and perhaps even grateful for, you can cheerfully interfere with, and take advantage of, rather than worry about or object to, the overuse of prepositions.

Enough. What do I want to go back to finding out about the ins and outs of where I started from for?

Re Branding

Branding

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Maybe. But names of things and people have connotations, if not in our language then  in others. And the connotation isn’t always favourable.

Canola oil used to be known as ‘rapeseed’ oil. Re-branding it has seen increased consumption and relaxed some furrowed brows (it comes from ‘rapa,’ Latin for ‘turnip’). It’s now the third most commonly used vegetable oil in the world.

Something similar happened with the re-branding of tuna, which used to be sold in tins as  ‘horse mackerel’. It sounds much more appetising now. How easily a change in brand  name can alter our perception of a product or service.

It works with people too. Tyrants have long known this. Gaius Octavius Thurinus became  ‘Augustus’ (‘the revered one’), Temüjin was accorded the title ‘Genghis Khan’ (‘supreme ruler of the ocean’) and Josef Besarionis dze Jughhashvili became ‘Stalin’ (‘man of steel’). Smart re-branding all round.

Singers have always known how to re-brand. Helen Mitchell became ‘Nellie Melba,’ Harry Webb became ‘Cliff Richard,’ Jiles Richardson became ‘The Big Bopper,’ Richard Starkey  became ‘Ringo Starr’ and Stefani Germanotta became ‘Lady Gaga’. More successful rebranding.

Likewise, actors have often sought a new trading name. Issur Danielovitch became ‘Kirk Douglas,’ Marion Martin became ‘John Wayne’. Frances Gumm became ‘Judy Garland.’  Frederick Austerlitz became ‘Fred Astaire,’ and my favourite, Ramón Estévez, became ‘Martin Sheen’.

Even the British royal family has undergone some re-branding. At the time of the First World War, when King George V was snarling across the channel at his cousin Kaiser Wilhelm, the royals changed their family name ‘Saxe-Coburg and Gotha’ (Queen Victoria had married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha) to ‘Windsor’ and thus it has remained ever since. Why mess with a winning brand?

Our biological habits too can be successfully re-branded. Once upon a time, people took naps. Everyone agreed that naps were good for you but ‘taking a nap’ was for grannies and kids. Men didn’t nap. They were too tough. So when health and safety authorities wanted  to promote the virile virtues of dozing off (for example, a booze snooze in your car, after over-indulgence or road fatigue), they successfully rebranded the humble nap as a ‘powernap’. Tough guys could literally rest easy. Same product, new packaging: and it worked.

But in our global economy, across different languages and cultures, we don’t always get our branding right. Product names in particular have an unfortunate tendency to become lost in translation. Here are just a few notable examples:

Ford Pinto (in Portuguese this means ‘Ford penis’), SARS (a sarsaparilla soft drink produced by Golden Circle now shares its name with the acronym for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), Golden Gaytime (Australia’s own ice cream), Pee Cola (from Ghana), Pschitt! (onomatopoeic brand of soft drink from France), Ayds (brand of candy from the USA), Bimbo (a type of sandwich from Portugal), Bonka (brand of coffee in Spain), Erektus (brand of energy drink from the Czech Republic), Fart (brand of fruit juice from Poland), Fat (brand of beer from Sweden), Jerk Sauce (brand of condiment from Jamaica), BumBum (brand of ice cream from Germany), Flavors of Negroes (a restaurant brand in the Philippines), Fourskin (a clothing store brand in Singapore), KKK (a supermarket chain from Finland), and Sogay (brand of bottled water from Peru).

It’s time for re-branding among these products, even if only to stop the sniggers of tourists. Of course the names aren’t wrong in their own language, just inappropriate in a global wired-up age where we can all guffaw at one another’s idioms. My favourite miscued brand comes from finance company CAGA (Commercial and General Acceptance Ltd), who used to advertise their services at Australian airports and railway stations,
thereby greeting surprised visitors from Latin America with metre-high billboards proclaiming the Spanish word for ‘SHIT’.

A rose by any other name might not be a rose.