Sunday, May 01, 2005

Bad Words Must Die

"We utilize our core competencies to deliver value-added, client-focused, win-win synergies to leverage a total quality paradigm yackity yadda blah blah blah."

I wrote this about five years ago for a company website where I was creative director. It almost didn't make the cut because of the sacred cows involved. But it flew, the site won awards, and there was holy beef for dinner.

Nice story, isn't it?

Much of what passes for business writing falls into that godawful category of corporate-speak. Much ado for not much. The fact is, if more people wrote like they speak, more people would be better writers. Heaven help you if you actually talk like that.

Lingo is only appropriate when a regular word won't work. For instance, "fungible" is a lawyer word. It means a commodity, something innately replaceable, without individual characteristics. That's a good word. Three syllables pack a wallop.

But unless it passes that acid test, it's pretentious and needlessly difficult, even if your audience speaks lingonese. No one sounds smarter because of it. A fussy style will never make up for substance.

That said, I will fall on my sword for a rich vocabulary and colorful language. There's beauty in that.

For instance, a word I heard for the first time a few months ago is "bespoke." As in Savile Row bespoke suits. Prince Charles wears bespoke suits. There are bespoke tailors. It's a wonderful word. It's poetic. As if quality could speak its name. Bespoke. That meets the acid test. It is the perfect word for tailor-made.

It's human to love language. Everyone loves a catchy phrase. Witness your more interesting country music lyrics. There's a twist. Don't it make your brown eyes blue? That works. Doesn't it make your dominant ocular genetics sink into clinical depression? That doesn't.

The right words are like a breath of ozone, washing away the cobwebs and increasing visibility.

George Bernard Shaw

Most mission statements are meaningless bits of corporate-speak.

George Bernard Shaw didn't call this brilliant bit of writing a mission statement, but it is. We spend so much energy searching for happiness. Mr. Shaw knew where it was:

This is the true joy in life . . . being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one . . . being a force of nature instead of a feverish little cloud of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy . . . . I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I life, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me. It's a sort of splendid torch which I've got to hold up for a moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it to future generations.