Lost for words in Mickey’s magic kingdom

Arriving recently at Disneyland I came across the sign pictured above while walking to the hotel entrance. Something about it bothered me.

Presumably what Mickey and Goofy meant when they briefed their sign writer was “Look, we gotta tell people to take the goddam sidewalk instead of jaywalking across the driveway.” What they ended up with was a blunt directive likely to prompt the puzzled reaction: ‘Er, utilize the sidewalk for what?’

Utilize, whether spelt with a ‘z’ or an ‘s’, is another of those dumb words that until a few years ago had a mercifully low profile except in science fiction shows (“Spock, it’s time to utilise the reverse thrusters!”) and scientific academic papers (“As well as for propulsion, the male amoeba utilises its foot for kicking smaller amoeba in the head.”). But then a decade or so ago, ‘utilise’ went mainstream and shouldered its way into the corporate arena.

Why this happened is unclear, but most likely it was down to the corporate tendency to deem short, expressive words to be dull and unworthy and thus in need of replacement by longer, more important sounding ones. And what could sound more important, more compelling, more leadershippy, than to replace boring old ‘use’ with ‘utilise’? What’s wrong with that?

Quite a lot, as it happens, because the two words don’t mean the same thing – although the distinction is subtle. ‘Use’ means to deploy something for a particular purpose, with an implication that the purpose is specifically that for which the thing was made, or otherwise exists. Hence “Please use the air freshener next time, for pity’s sake”. ‘Utilise’, by subtle contrast, means to adapt or make practical use of something but implying that the intended use differs from the thing’s original purpose, as in: “Dad, if I tied a hedgehog to a stick could I utilise it as a back scratcher?”

So instead of implying that people should feel free to utilise their sidewalk for some purpose other than merely walking on it, the Disneyland Hotel might instead have welcomed its guests with a sign saying: ‘Please use the sidewalk’, thus making it friendlier (by adding ‘the’), clearer in its message, and shorter – five syllables instead of six.

There are those who probably don’t give a Donald Duck about any of this, and who would deem the distinction between the two words to be so subtle as to be not worth bothering about. They may well have a point. But the fact remains that unless Mickey Mouse is in your audience, saying ‘utilise’ instead of ‘use’ doesn’t make a team update or PowerPoint presentation any more credible, or authoritative, or impressive. It just makes it longer.

Help! Where did all these dumb words come from?

So, no-one has problems any more – they only have ‘issues’. As far as I can recall, this is one of the earliest examples of a stupid word displacing a perfectly good one. Had the, er, issue ended there, we might have lived with it, albeit through gritted teeth. But what the hell has happened? We’ve become so prim and proper that our language is now peppered with soft-soap euphemisms that have replaced everyday functional words now inexplicably deemed vulgar or inappropriate.

Continue Reading →

Seven writing mistakes guaranteed to annoy your customers

Crafting the perfect customer letter or email can be tricky. Mass corporate communications are usually composed to tight deadlines yet often require delicate input from multiple business stakeholders. Even with the best intentions it can be easy for the importance of the customer experience to slip from top of mind in the sheer process of ‘getting a letter out’.

Nonetheless there are certain traits prevalent in many corporate communications that are unlikely to lead to happier customers and yet are easily avoided. Below are a few culprits that seem to crop up time and again.

Continue Reading →

The five best things I learned doing a creative writing MA

As a novice, er, novelist, I got lucky. To no-one’s surprise so much as my own, I was accepted onto the MA Creative Writing (Research) program at the University of Technology Sydney, the output of which, five years later, was my novel Where There Is Darkness and a 10,000-word ‘exegesis’ (a word I had to look up in a dictionary upon starting the course).

Continue Reading →

Ten corporate buzzwords you never want to hear again

Why do we walk into work on a Monday morning and leave the plain-English-speaking part of our brain outside in the street? Most of us use business jargon, to a greater or lesser extent.

But if we actually stop and think about it, anyone of sound mind would surely struggle to deny that most corporate-speak is pointless, confusing and downright annoying. Here are ten Category ‘A’ offenders.

Take it offline

Originating in the early days of teleconferencing when being ‘on line’ sounded new and exciting (i.e. in about 1955), to take something offline simply means to talk about it later – or more probably never again. Thus it’s often used as a put-down in team meetings, with ‘let’s take that offline, Henry’ translating as ‘shut up please, you’re boring everyone to death’.

Synergy

Tragically this is a real word even though it sounds like it was dreamt up by David Brent. It means to generate additional energy by combining things, although the word often has the opposite effect on anyone who hears it.

In the […] space

Unless you’re employed by NASA, the word ‘space’ is used in the office merely as an unnecessary substitute for the name of a topic or category. ‘Can you give us a heads-up on what’s happening in the online space?’ simply means ‘what has the digital team been up to this week?’

Deep dive

Disappointingly this has nothing to do with marine exploration but simply means to go into detail about something. However, context is everything and a gifted practitioner can give the phrase a shot of oxygen with lines like ‘great insight, Tiffany – but let’s take that offline before we do some deep dives into that space.’

Going forward

Like the Kim Kardashian of corporate-speak, ‘going forward’ has become so ubiquitous that it almost sounds vaguely intelligent until you regain your faculties and remember that all it means is ‘in future’ or ‘from now on’. It was probably coined by some business ‘guru’ to imply that a company isn’t going backwards, but tends to have the opposite effect when used in statements like ‘going forward the organisation is facing strong headwinds and will need to rigorously review its cost base’.

Going forward’s celebrity status was confirmed when renowned wordsmith David Beckham quoted it, although Becks overcooked it somewhat: ‘Going forward in the future, I will be even more involved [in fashion].’

Align

The ceaseless quest for alignment is the lifeblood of the modern corporation. Virtually anything can be aligned: teams, projects, customers, budgets, biscuits. If done very skilfully, an alignment might even generate synergies going forward.

In the loop

Once the undisputed world champion of waffle, its crown was long since stolen by ‘going forward’, and ‘in the loop’ nowadays has rather a tired naughties feel about it. However, like a kind of Dame Maggie Smith of corporate jargon, it evokes a quaint nostalgia and can be endearingly effective if wheeled out in occasional cameo roles.

Granular

This word was rarely used outside the scientific arena before it was talent-spotted by the corporate world and made famous. ‘Theo, in a helicopter view this looks like it might kick some goals, but does it stack up at the granular level?’

Reach out

‘Reach out, I’ll be there’ crooned The Four Tops in 1967. Fast forward half a century and the expression ‘reach out’ has itself rocketed to stardom by shouldering its way into the corporate lexicon. This emotive phrase evokes images of a supplicating minion extending a despairing hand in a plea for deliverance, and has elbowed aside its boringly functional predecessors – namely ‘contact’, ‘ask’ or ‘talk to’.

Circle back

The third grade cousin of premier league superstar ‘going forward’, ‘circle back’ can nonetheless hold its own against other any weasel word contender. The phrase makes absolutely no sense and simply means to return to something later.

Okay, that’s enough. I don’t know about you, but I can’t take any more. And really, it doesn’t have to be like this. Rather than spending your working day feeling like your head is being held under water, you could persuade your boss to send a message to all staff outlawing the use of this kind of language, as UK government minister Alan Duncan did. Shame he didn’t persuade his boss to pass a law making it illegal, and, and… stop.

Why don’t the police talk like normal people?

Repeated exposure to television’s nightly round-up of crime, violence and human misery – a.k.a. the six o’clock news – leads me to wonder where police officers learn to talk. Is the abandonment of normal speech a critical part of their academy training? Continue Reading →

The best seat in the house

For the fourth year running, a seal has taken up seasonal residence on the steps of the Sydney Opera House. I don’t mean on the main front steps – the ones Crowded House perform on – but the narrow ones leading down to the little landing stage at the north-west tip of the Opera House forecourt. Luckily these steps are rarely in use, being reserved for visiting VIPs who arrive by water. Perhaps the royal barge moored there when the Queen opened the joint in 1973. Had a seal been in residence back then, it might have been evicted to make way for her. Or maybe the Queen would have deferred to the seal and ascended to the forecourt by another route, thus giving it the status of royal seal. Continue Reading →

Ten easy ways to fail on a TV cooking show

Television cooking show ‘season’ is upon us, so for one of my first blog posts I thought I’d offer some suggestions to those contestants (admittedly a minority) who from the opening scenes of the first episode give the impression that they suddenly wish they were somewhere else… Continue Reading →