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What Are Words For?

"What are words for, when no one listens anymore?" Do you remember that song? It came out during the same era of "Video killed the radio star." Okay, so I'm a child of the late 70s/early '80s, that prehistoric time when TVs had no remotes, when a huge VCR (remember the Betamax?) sat in the Hi-Fi center along with ABBA and Dr. Hook LPs, and a computer was something on which you played Atari Tennis or Pac-man.

Back then, we all learned to write in the same cursive script. At my school, we used a fountain pen with blue-ink cartridges that leaked all over your fingers, a constant reminder of the toils of the written word: Grammar was sacrosanct and there were no distractions in the classroom with iPhones, texts or IMing, only boys and passed notes. Back then, we didn't mess around with language to create new "isms" to suit a campaign or a whole new line of marketing buzzwords that would eventually be so passé, they became offensive.

It was a simple time, I admit, but we communicated with clarity. Real words, devoid of BS and convoluted meanings. We didn't have to create a paradigm shift to evangelize the next generation of social media influencers who would start deploying SMM platforms to strategically position thought leaders to take it to the next level. We didn't need to apply a holistic approach to Web 2.0 enhancements that would enable enablers to join the conversation and engage their audience by retweeting and Digging. We didn't even need to realign ourselves with a new media landscape to garner attention, augment a comprehensive results-oriented process that would deliver stellar ROI and increased awareness on a sentiment index to measure positive feelings out there in the blogosphere.

Nope, back then we didn't have to worry about using forward-thinking, innovative, disruptive technological advancements to deliver increased brand affinity and build synergistic partnerships that would transcend the status quo and bring about a sea change in performance-driven, cutting-edge, high-impact, integrated solutions with location-aware abilities to deliver best-in-class results. And we never once worried about the power of integrating scalable platforms to stimulate online conversations led by social media disciples who were eternally cautious practitioners of pre-populating devices and dashboards to solidify infrastructural advancements that would engender loyalty and strategic alliances.

We didn't even have to think outside the box to break through the clutter.

Know what I mean?

What I actually mean is that we're losing the meaning of our words. From the sublime to the ridiculous, truly. Our parlance is being reduced to symbols, acronyms and a series of hyphenated verbs-come-adjectives, as more people forget the communications basics: Say what you mean with clarity, brevity and intelligence. Instead, we've worked ourselves into a frenzied mash-up and indeed breakdown of "impressive" words.

Dumb, Dumber and Dumbest?

At the heart of every sales pitch, press release or marketing campaign is a message, one that is supposed to communicate an inherent and useful value for a product or service. For many, this act of communicating now requires oral gimmickry or just plain stupidness. Shame on us. It's taken thousands of years to create such a complex linguistic machine, and less than 30 to kill it.

It's not just English, or Americanese, however. The Real Academia Española is also facing challenges as the Spanish language adapts itself to absorb global language trends and cultural changes.

I agree that verbose writing is just as much of a turnoff in any language, but in our quest to sound more clevererer, bang out more messages faster, tweet and Facebook ourselves to oblivion, and send out communiqué littered with grandiose-sounding words, we've both devalued our language and the meaning of the words we use. And become a lot more brainless in the process. When we've reduced any number of words to WTF, OMG and LMFAO, which have entered a multi-generational lexicon and are creeping into regular business correspondence, what's left?

Anyone got a new word for that? Perhaps you'll find one in a game I created called BS Bingo. Feel free to send me your suggestions, too.

6 comments about "What Are Words For? ".
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  1. Terry T Smith, November 11, 2009 at 7:45 a.m.

    Lest I add to the clutter by creating a new word for all this, let me be nostalgic and say "RIGHT ON." As a self-confessed language prude, I have become hardened to the reality of which you write so well. Yes, everything that's alive changes, even language... but suppsedly in a way that improves, not obscures, its usefulness. KISS is still the effective writer's most important rule.
    And as to BS Bingo, well, it's been around in various versions for almost as long as the original Pac-Man. I like the version you created, all the same.

  2. Monica Bower from TERiX Computer Service, November 11, 2009 at 9:12 a.m.

    I have a different take on this, Vanessa. This linguistic migration you touch on is actually at least two separate and opposite processes, the one by which high school kids use the fewest possible letters to get a point across, and the other to which you devote most of this piece, the one by which marketers court each other. Marketing speak has been around at least since the early 90's when I got into the business and first heard the term paradigm shift; at the time it was more a mishmash of idioms than empty psuedo-scientific buzzwords, but no matter.

    This all springs out of the inward focus too many marketing departments and agencies take on where their goal is to win awards and sound clever, and the actual selling of any actual product or service to anyone other than other marketing folk never once enters the mind. This is nowhere more evident than in tech marketing, which is as unintelligible to most of its target audience as the sections of a product manual written in a foreign language. In a way it IS a foreign language, the strange psuedo-English dialect marketers use to talk to each other.

    On the other hand txtspk is the essence of clarity and brevity. A press release that included a few IMHO's and a STFU would certainly get the point across faster and more plainly than what comes over the wire from agencies today.

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, November 11, 2009 at 9:53 a.m.

    May the gods of language, communication and humanity bless you into infinity.

  4. Linda De seife from LRD Communications, November 11, 2009 at 10:09 a.m.

    All I can say is, "Amen"!

  5. Wendy Jameson from ColnaTec, November 11, 2009 at 12:12 p.m.

    Fantastic comments to a fantastic article. I want to say an Amen & Right On with Linda & Terry, and I agree with the distinction Monica draws. As a communication specialist and business writer for 20+ years, I too am a language prude and still believe in the power of words. It takes greater skill to say something concisely & precisely than to throw buzzwords around (in an effort to make you sound more hip). More is sometimes just more. Less is more effective.

  6. Vanessa Horwell from ThinkInk Communications, November 13, 2009 at 9:04 a.m.

    Great observations and comments, thanks for taking the time to read and respond to my post.

    I agree, there is more than one force at work devaluing our language. And I also agree that practitioners of marketing and PR - the main culprits behind the verbal gobbledygook we'll dub “clutterspeak” - would be much better served by adopting some of the conciseness that’s inherent to character-limited mediums (like twitter, texting, etc.).

    I do, however, think that both movements work at the extreme margins of what our language is, and therefore are both simultaneously crippling our ability to communicate.

    VH

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