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.

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