How good words turn bad
The items that we now categorise as weasel words, wank language and corporate buzzwords weren’t always the indefensible, indecipherable brain-slop of desk-shackled keyboard tappers.
Almost every single one began as a word or term that didn’t make you want to chainsaw it alive and throw its corpse into an abandoned quarry.
Some were very good words: think of bespoke, curate and granular.
Some were not quite so pleasing to look at or say, but had delightful original meanings: think of journey, storytelling or kicking goals.
And some were fairly plain but serviceable: think of action (the noun), drive and disrupt.
Each of them has succumbed. Action has become an entirely unnecessary verb. Journey, drive and disrupt have reached epidemic proportions and have lost almost all meaning to the point where “Let’s drive a disruption journey” would now be considered a perfectly legitimate (possibly an “innovative”) sentence in many offices. Storytelling is what a lot of people who can’t tell stories profess to do exceptionally well these days. Etc, etc.
Yes, each of the has succumbed, but not in a single, fell swoop. Instead they have succumbed in a relatively lengthy process of bollocksification. It can take many forms, but it usually goes something like this:
Step 1 – Metamorphosis
The word or term begins to transmute, often ironically or jokingly, amongst a small circle of quirkily cool, shruggingly fashionable or otherwise unintentionally influential people. (Maybe you and your friends.)
Say you and your best mate remember blowing dust out of Nintendo Entertainment System game cartridges to make them work again as kids. It becomes a running joke and then it becomes a kind of synonym for using a ridiculously primitive method for remedying a seemingly complex situation.
Soon you’ve reduced it down to a single term: “cartridge blowing”. Your circle of friends and their circle of friends use it, too.
The words are still perfectly good; they’re just used in a new and whimsical way by a tiny group of people.
Step 2 – Popularisation
The influence of the people who use the term leads to its spread. It spreads to every corner of the world, except in the most earnest and unironic places on the planet.
Even still, some people get the joke, others don’t. At all.
This combination of popularity and misinterpretation turns the whole dissemination into a worldwide game of Chinese whispers and as the term is passed from one person to the next it begins to become tatty and to make a faint buzzing noise.
At the same time, its meaning changes and so does its connotation – drastically so.
You and your friends no longer talk about “cartridge blowing”.
Step 3 – Appropriation
The term is moribund when it reaches the most earnest and unironic places on the planet: global corporations.
When it gets there it’s generally been pared down – in this case to “cartridging” – and whether it lives again as a creature of the undead or dies on a boardroom floor somewhere depends on its utility as a tool of evasion, cant or pretense.
Once it starts to be eagerly used by organisations without a single employee who would ever have seen, let alone blown dust out of, a Nintendo cartridge – the term is lost.
“Cartridging” in a corporate context now means finding a less expensive, less technology-intensive solution to a major problem. Ten years after inventing the term, you’re mortified to hear the managing director of the company you work for tell a work function that “in an era of doing more with less, we need to drive cartridging innovations at scale”.
Your term has gone to the other side. The grass is not greener there.
There is no grass in a wasteland.
An edited version of this article first appeared in the MyCareer section of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald.
You can read the column – Benign to Five – in those papers every Saturday, and if you miss it, you can look it up online in the Workplace section of The Age, the Sydney Morning Herald, The Canberra Times, WAToday and Brisbane Times. (I now wankishly call myself a “syndicated columnist” on my CV.)