Last week we had our first team meeting of the year. Each of us shared two ambitions for the department. One thing we think we should do more; one thing we think we should do less.
We talked a lot about the need for more inspiration. We all recognised the value of getting outside, literally and metaphorically, and acknowledged how hard that can be in the face of deadlines, meetings and our desk-bound habits. I’ve written a lot before about why I think this is important and it’s great to work with people who want to find ways to carve out the time and space for this to happen.
But one person called out something different. It was a striking ‘less of’ in the midst of a great deal of ‘more of’. He wanted to see us resort less often to what he called ‘wank words’.
We all know wank words. They’re everywhere. Working at a digital agency means you’re particularly susceptible to them, placed as we are at the intersection of marketing-ese, digital innovation, business bullshit and office life. Each of those four realms brings its own unique flavour of nonsense. If you’re not careful they can become your core diet.
We all hate wank words but find we can’t help using them. They’re infectious. Quarantine is almost impossible.
There are different categories of wank, of course. I enjoy a humorous digitally-derived portmanteau as much as the next twerson, but even I draw the line at phygital. What makes monstrosities like this truly horrifying is knowing that soon we will have become used to it. In fact it will become indispensable. We hate wank words until the very moment we come to rely on them. Can you remember how the word advertorial made you feel slightly ill when you first heard it? Doesn’t stop you using it now. In fact, there’s no better, snappier way of describing… well, an advertorial.
Imagine if that happened with phygital? Doesn’t bear thinking about.
But it might come to pass. And we’d only have ourselves to blame. When it comes to allowing wank words across the acceptability threshold marketing doesn’t just have form, it’s a serial offender. We’re willing victims, happily inviting the vampire into our home. Once bitten, twice well what did you expect?
But the most obvious examples are not even the most pernicious. In our world we’re past masters Not content with inventing words like engagement and aspirational, we then over- and mis-use them until they are entirely drained of value or meaning. At least we know what advertorial means. Engagement is not so much a word as a vessel for whatever we want it to convey.
But apparently that wasn’t enough. Now we have words like agile and lean. In their original technological context, the place from which advertising stole them, these words have very concrete meanings. Now they’re just connotation carriers, emblematic of the anti-advertising brigade that works in advertising.
And, well, growth hacker? Hmmmmm.
I think this is important. This is the stuff that surrounds us. Language is elemental. We need to make sure that it isn’t doing us harm.
Fish don’t see water, but it still needs cleaning now and again.
This isn’t all our fault, of course. It’s been happening for decades. Towards the end of last year I finally read an essay I should have read years ago – Politics and the English Language by George Orwell. It is witty, angry, incisive writing. It is writing about writing, a critique of the general laziness that Orwell saw setting in to the way people used language.
The second paragraph contains this:
An effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.
Slovenly writing, Orwell says, has two major characteristics:
The first is staleness: the other is lack of precision. The writer has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no-one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for their meaning, and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a pre-fabricated hen-house.
We’ve all seen emails and presentations like that.
Hell, we’ve all written emails and presentations like that. Replace politics with marketing and you realise just how entrenched our bad linguistic habits are.
Orwell then lists a “catalogue of swindles and perversions… the tricks by means of which the work of prose construction is habitually dodged”:
Dying metaphors: “worn-out metaphors which have lost all their evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves”
Operators, or verbal false limbs: “the elimination of simple verbs [with] some general-purposes verb such as prove, serve, form, play, render… Simple conjunctions and prepositions are replaced by such phrases as with respect to, the fact that, in view of, in the interests of…”
Pretentious diction: “it is often easier to make up words of this kind (deregionalize, impermissible, extramarital, non-fragmentary and so forth) than to think up the English words that will cover one’s meaning.”
Meaningless words: “Words like romantic, plastics, values, human, dead, sentimental, natural, vitality, as used in art criticism, are strictly meaningless. When one critic writes of a work’s ‘living quality’, while another writes of ‘its peculiar deadness’, the reader accepts this as a simple difference of opinion. If words like black and white were involved, instead of the jargon words dead and living, he would see at once that language was being used in an improper way.”
What does all this have to do with us?
Orwell is talking about the political use of language. He is interrogating “language as an instrument for expressing and not concealing or preventing thought.” As client-facing strategists, this is also what we do. We recruit clients to our cause. We use language to define the ideas we believe in. We want them to believe in those ideas, so we require clear, precise language to convey our zeal and give shape to our vision of the future.
We think on behalf of our clients. We must think clearly. Therefore we must express ourselves clearly as well.
See if you recognise your own habits in this final passage. I know I did. The creeping sense of shame I felt when I first read it is something I try and hold on to. It might force me to change.
Modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists of gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this writing is that it is easy. If you use ready-made phrases, you not only don’t have to hunt about for words; you also don’t have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences, since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonius.
By using stale metaphors, similes and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself.
A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly? But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you – even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent – and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself. It is at this point that the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear.
I think my colleague is right. Wank words are terrible., and Orwell shows us why. Our ideas are our currency. We owe it to ourselves not to allow meaningless phrases to construct our thoughts. It means they wield too much power. It means we’re not in control of what we want to say.
And that’s definitely something we want to see less of.