…PUNCTUATED BY RUDENESS

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Articles published earlier this week reignited debate about punctuation – one of the favourite subjects for online peevers and pedantic Twitterati. The articles seemed to be suggesting that traditional punctuation, or some of its components, could now be misinterpreted or convey quite different meanings to those originally intended.

The articles in fact were focusing on the full-stop or period as used in messaging apps, in particular on WhatsApp. Younger users of the platform reported that a full-stop at the end of a message indicated aggression, grumpiness or passive-aggression, as opposed to the neutral finality signalled in more traditional contexts.

And this  – context – is the key. The young devotees of messaging apps are unconcerned with the formal written English demanded in the case of essays, business letters, reports, even mainstream journalism. Their interactions are happening somewhere else and intended to achieve something else, too. My 20 year-old son tells me that his messaging environments simply make traditional usages redundant – and worse, if applied they cause misunderstandings in tone and affect.

Mentioning this on Twitter provoked this response: ‘I’m Gen X — part of the generation that invented the internet. As the late Rutger Hauer said, “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.” My cohort literally invented all internet and messaging and texting traditions. Some spotty oik’s opinion is non-salient.’

Some other older internet and phone users were equally indignant, fearing they were being required to adopt the sloppy or unconventional habits of callow youth, but if we’re having to message across generations (which probably happens rarely anyway) we/they won’t make the same assumptions/impose our conventions on one another, surely?

Like all instances of language in use the language of messaging is context-sensitive and depends on interlocutors’ intentions, assumptions and reception of the ‘utterances’ in question. We adjust our conventions to accommodate – if we can, so we should indeed worry about full-stops, but only on WhatsApp, Facebook Messaging or Instagram.

The crucial point is that the electronic communications we are considering, although they have to be typed, are not examples of writing as we know it, but of something else. Messaging is effectively a verbal imitation of the very rapid to-and-fro of informal speech and that’s what it tries to render with its novel disregard of commas, colons and semi-colons, ellipses (the … that I am addicted to) and its innovative play with capitals, full-stops and exclamation marks. The notorious initials and acronyms – LOL, SMH, POS and the like –  were invented in order to cope with accelerated exchanges, although my children tell me that this abbreviation style is ‘very 2012’ and ‘so over’. Like many grownups I came to it much too late and was humiliated on national radio for thinking SMH meant ‘same here’, as mischievous young informants had told me (for the uninitiated it means ‘shaking my head’ in disbelief or exasperation). I do still use IMHO (in my humble opinion) when pontificating on Twitter. If feeling particularly passive-aggressive, IMVHO.

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Because neither conventional writing nor sparse message-speak can convey the tone and import of this kind of conversation,  emoji are required to compensate for body language, tone of voice, etc. Emoji can to some extent contribute the missing tonal and affective dimension to digital text but there is still no easy way to flag sarcasm, for example (I never ever come across ~*~sparkle sarcasm~*~ punctuation, or the 2011 attempt at a sarcasm font using back-sloping italics).

The two recent articles that triggered the latest debates were from the BBC website:

https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-49182824

…and the Telegraph:

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/family/life/full-stop-onwhatsapp-cutting-weapon-choice-use-wisely/?WT.mc_id=tmg_share_tw

…but the first article based on actual research to raise this issue actually dates back to 2015:

https://www.theguardian.com/technology/shortcuts/2015/dec/09/science-has-spoken-ending-a-text-with-a-full-stop-makes-you-a-monster?CMP=share_btn_tw

…and Binghampton University usefully summarised the topic in 2017:

https://phys.org/news/2017-11-punctuation-text-messages-cues-face-to-face.html

 

 

I talked on BBC Radio about the full-stop and the punctuation age-gap and a vox-pop carried out by the BBC in Derry confirmed that, at least in that city, younger messagers and texters were all familiar with the new conventions and with the misunderstandings that could arise.

Finally, there was a chance for me to pontificate again in an illuminating discussion last week, one of many on Twitter, on older people’s preferences for punctuation:

…a subject nicely spoofed by the Daily Mash a year ago:

Man throwing semicolons around like confetti

THE REAL WORDS OF THE YEAR – 2018

It has become a tradition for the major dictionary publishers, along with some linguists’ associations, to nominate a ‘word of the year’, a term (or in the case of Oxford’s 2015 crying/laughing emoji a symbol) which supposedly captures the essence of the zeitgeist, and in doing so marks the proposer as someone in tune with the times and with their target audience. The words chosen are rarely actually new, and by the nature of the exercise calculated to provoke disagreement and debate. I have worked with and written about what linguists and anthropologists call ‘cultural keywords’ and have my own ideas on which expressions could be truly emblematic of social change and cultural innovation. The words already nominated by the self-appointed arbiters are discussed at the foot of the page, but here, for what it’s worth, are mine (in order of preference)…

 

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AI

Yes, strictly speaking it’s two words, but this little initialism looks like a two-letter word and is processed by the brain as a ‘lexeme’ or a single unit of sound and sense. AI, artificial intelligence, is the hottest topic not only in tech-related practices but in fields as (seemingly) diverse as marketing, finance, automotives, medicine and health, education, environmentalism. Zdnet.com has published one of the most useful overviews of AI and its sub-categories and applications:

https://www.zdnet.com/article/what-is-ai-everything-you-need-to-know-about-artificial-intelligence/

Though it is one of the most fashionable and most resonant terms in current conversation, a slogan and a rallying cry as well as a definition, AI is problematic in the same way as two other recent contenders for word-of the moment, CRYPTO and DIGITAL. The former is shorthand for all the very complex, not to say near-incomprehensible elements that have accompanied the invention of crypto-currencies – bitcoins and blockchains in particular. These advances have yet to prove their worth for most ordinary consumers who will often be bemused by new terminology that seems to be traded among experts somewhere beyond their grasp or their reach. In the same way for the last few years ‘digital’ has been a mantra evoking the unstoppable influence of new electronic media, (related SOCIAL was a strong candidate for buzzword of 2017). Digital’s over-use by overexcited marketing professionals, would-be thought-leaders and influencers has been inspiring mockery since 2016, as in the spoof article in the Daily Mash: https://www.thedailymash.co.uk/news/business/nobody-knows-what-digital-supposed-to-mean-20160614109525

To put it almost as crudely as the Daily Mash does, there’s a sense in which almost no layperson knows, or can know fully, what Digital, Crypto and AI really mean, and the same goes for the expressions derived from them – ‘deep learning’ comes to mind. Their power derives from their novelty and their ability to evoke a techutopian future happening now. The phrase artificial intelligence was first employed in 1956 and its abbreviated form has been used by insiders since at least the early 2000s, but it is only now that it, and the concepts it embodies, are coming into their own.

 

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INTERSECTIONALITY

At first sight just another over-syllabled buzzword escaping from the confines of academic theory (‘performativity’, ‘superdiversity’ and ‘dimensionality’ are recent examples) into highbrow conversation, intersectionality is actually an important addition to the lexicon of identity studies. It was coined as long ago as 1989 by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a civil rights activist and legal scholar who wrote that traditional feminist ideas and anti-racist policies exclude black women because they face overlapping discrimination that is unique to them.  The word took 26 years to make it into the OED and is still unfamiliar to many, but during 2018 has featured in more and more debates on diversity and discrimination, marking the realisation that, for BAME women and for other marginalised groups, the complexities of oppression and inequality occur in a matrix that incorporates not only gender and ethnicity but such factors as age, sexuality and social class. There are each year a few forbiddingly formal or offputtingly technical expressions that do deserve to cross over into mainstream use. This I think is one of them and no journalist, educationalist, politician or concerned citizen should be unaware of it.

A bad-tempered take on intersectionality as buzzword was provided last year by https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/sep/30/intersectional-feminism-jargon

 

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CIVILITY

I was intrigued by the sudden appearance (sudden at least by my understanding) earlier this year – its online lookups spiked in June – of a decorous, dignified term in the midst of very undecorous, undignified public debate. This old latinate word’s denotations and connotations were in complete contrast with the ‘skunked terms’ and toxic terminology that I had collected elsewhere on this site. In fact, as is often the case, this word of the moment emerged from a longer tradition, but one largely unknown hitherto outside the US. Its proposer was Professor P.M Forni, who sadly died a couple of weeks ago. In 1997, together with colleagues he established the Johns Hopkins Civility Project — now known as the Civility Initiative — a collaboration of academic disciplines that addressed the significance of civility and manners in modern life. His ideas were seized upon by commentators on this year’s events in the US, with some asserting that the civil rights protests of the past were indeed more civil than today’s rancorous exchanges. Democrat Nancy Pelosi denounced Donald Trump’s ‘daily lack of civility’ but also criticised liberal opponents’ attacks on him and his constituency. Others pointed out that polite debate alone had never prevailed in the struggles against bigotry and violence and that civility was an inadequate, irrelevant response. Cynics inserted their definitions: ‘civility’ = treating white people with respect; ‘political correctness’ = treating everybody else with respect…which prompts the thought that perhaps, in recognition of realities on both sides of the Atlantic, it’s really ‘incivility’ that should be my word of the year.

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Here, in the Economist, is the ‘Johnson’ column’s perceptive analysis of those other nominations for 2018’s word of the year:

https://www.economist.com/books-and-arts/2018/12/08/the-meaning-of-the-words-of-the-year

While US lexicographer Kory Stamper provides the inside story on the American choices:

https://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2018/12/18/language-nerds-worked-really-hard-that-words-year-list/wJgdhIMAQK7xcBvlc2iHOL/story.html?s_camp=bostonglobe:social:sharetools:twitter

Lynne Murphy‘s annual US to UK export/import of the year:

https://separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.com/2018/12/2018-us-to-uk-word-of-year-mainstream.html

And her UK to US counterpart:

https://separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.com/2018/12/2018-uk-to-us-word-of-year-whilst.html

In the New Year the American Dialect Society announced its own word of 2018, a disturbing euphemism employed by the Trump regime and a candidate for my glossary of toxic terminology (see elsewhere on this site):

https://www.americandialect.org/tender-age-shelter-is-2018-american-dialect-society-word-of-the-year

And from the militantly millennial LinguaBishes, some excellent examples of millennial/Generation Z terms of 2018:

https://linguabishes.com/2018/12/27/2018-words-of-the-year/

 

In October 2019 David Shariatmadari in the Guardian gets his preferences in early:

https://www.theguardian.com/science/2019/oct/14/cancelled-for-sadfishing-the-top-10-words-of-2019

 

…and, FWIW, I like to think that my own collection of cultural keywords, seeking to define the essence of Englishness back in 2011, is still relevant today:

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AT WAR WITH ‘ACRONYMS’ – TMI via TLA

 

Maria Hill: What does S.H.I.E.L.D. stand for, Agent Ward?
Grant Ward: Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division.
Maria Hill: And what does that mean to you?
Grant Ward: It means someone really wanted our initials to spell out “shield.”

— Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot episode

 

 

Stuart Andrew  MP

 

Two days ago the UK press reported that the Minister for Defence Procurement, Welsh Conservative MP Stuart Andrew, had declared war. On acronyms. Confounded and irritated by the number of these abbreviations circulating in his office and beyond, he ordered staff to avoid them at all costs. ‘He got fed up with people coming into his office and reeling off a list of letters and assuming he knew what they were referring to,’ a source close to the minister said. ‘I thought DVD had something to do with movies!’ the hapless minister (who has never served in the armed forces) had quipped at a meeting four weeks earlier. DVD was the name of the event at which he was speaking. It stands for ‘defence vehicle dynamics’.

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The flustered politician may have a point – one of the first documents to cross his desk was the latest 402-page guidebook to terminology used in the MOD (Ministry of Defence)*, referencing such titles as AARADCOM – the Army Armament Research and Development Command, and explaining that the initials CCU, for instance, could refer to

Central Control Unit
Certificate of Clearance for Use (for software)
Cockpit Control Unit
Combat Control Unit
Common Control Unit
Communication Control Unit
Computer Crime Unit

In vain did an unnamed MOD spokesperson respond: ‘These terms are used between subject matter experts and not with the general public.’

 

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‘Acronym’ entered English in 1940, as a translation of German akronym, first attested in 1921. It is composed of acro- from Greek akron (tip or top) and the English combining form  -onym, from Greek onoma, name. It denotes a word made up of initials or parts of other words, and should be pronounced as a word in its own right. It is not the same as an ‘initialism’ such as BBC or VIP or PC, where the letters are pronounced separately (the minister’s DVD falls into this category), or an abbreviation such as etc. or  lb (pound) where the relationship between form and sound is not straightforward. So NATO, AWOL, laser (for ‘light amplification by simulated emission of radiation’, radar (‘radio detection and ranging’) are acronyms: ASAP (‘as soon as possible’) is an acronym if said like a word, BOGOF (‘buy one, get one free’) too, but not when said as separated letters.

Some more modern three-letter combinations are genuine acronyms – SIM (card) from ‘subscriber identity module’, GIF (‘ graphics interchange format’), however you pronounce it,  and PIN (‘personal information number’) among them – but those familiar items of business-speak, ROI, SEO, B2B, SME – and now AI – are not, and nor, ironically is the disapproving or jokey shorthand TLA, for ‘three-letter acronym’ itself.

Lighthearted coinages SNAFU (‘situation normal, all fouled up’) or BOHICA (the oppressed officeworker’s injunction to ‘bend over, here it comes again’) are acronyms, but only a few of the so-called acronyms used in messaging and on social media really qualify: BTW, IDK, IMHO, SMH, TL;DR and the rest are strictly speaking initialisms. YOLO, LOL and ROFL, providing they are uttered in full, are among the exceptions.

The reason for the proliferation of acronyms, initialisms and abbreviations, and the justification for their use are obvious. In an accelerated culture they save us from having to – literally – spell out what we have to say or write and at the same time impart an idea of novelty, urgency and dynamism. As my correspondent Graham Guest observed on Twitter in a spoof response to Stuart Andrew’s protestations: ‘Minister, my radio detection and ranging equipment has just picked up a group of sea, air, lands wearing self-contained underwater breathing apparatus diving gear.’

Acronyms are very often controversial, in the same way as jargon and slang, in that they mystify and intimidate those who aren’t familiar with them, and seem to confer prestige and privilege on those who know how to use them. They can reinforce an insider/outsider imbalance in power in the workplace, the seminar –  or the ministerial briefing. A very simple test, though, is to try and replace the offending acronym with its full translation or explanation and see if the resulting sequence of speech, or text, sounds or looks viable. If it’s necessary to introduce a new abbreviated form, it must be glossed  (translated into simple language) the first time it is used, and, as with all insider codes, should only be employed in a context where interlocutors, partners, stakeholders, clients or audiences will readily understand it.

In April 2019 the BBC tried to forestall mockery of the acronyms peppering the script of its Line of Duty series by posting this synopsis:

‘A UCO is embedded in an OCG who was deployed as a CHIS but is AWOL. The SIO, who loves a REG 15, and his DI and DS from AC-12 are investigating because of the ED905 HGV ambush which the OCG set up as an RTC. They’re hunting H. Let’s go.’

 

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You can hear me chatting about the latest acronym wars on BBC5Live radio (the sequence begins at 47 minutes 26 seconds):

https://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/play/m0000pvp

 

As a footnote, my book of buzzwords and jargon, first published in 2007, contains examples of acronyms and abbreviations, many still in use, together with observations on the status conferred by mastering business-speak…

 

Shoot the Puppy

 

*An earlier version of it is here if you want to consult it:

https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/227048/acronyms_and_abbreviations_dec08.pdf

BUY-TO-LEAVE

Another recent buzzword highlights the impacts of commercial innovation upon urban infrastructure and on the lifestyles of both rich and poor in the metropolis…

 

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In 2015 I wrote about the fact that estate agents, journalists and grassroot activists were using the phrase lights-out London to describe the phenomenon whereby parts of the UK capital, especially those super-prime districts in the centre, have been deserted by ‘real’ people and are in the hands of absentee landlords (the government’s term is non-resident landlord, NRL) or absentee owners. There were then around 700,000 empty properties across the UK: in London 75% of buyers of new-builds are foreign, many of whom practise not just the buy-to-let tactics favoured by a generation of small domestic investors, but buy-to-leave. Wealthy non-doms are keeping around 20% of accommodation unused (units referred to colloquially as empties or more formally as vacant assets) in the knowledge that their investment will simply grow in value; other properties are unoccupied for most of the year, meaning that local economies in these areas are suffering a triple whammy. Spiralling house prices prompt private individuals to sell up and move out, at the same time the cost of office space is driving businesses further and further from these prime locations: once thriving shops and restaurants find themselves half-empty.

25% of investors coming from Gulf states to buy property in London planned purely to gain from rising prices without living there, according to the Guardian in 2016, who also reported that a quarter of all those who planned to buy a property in London were targeting capital gains rather than looking for somewhere to live or to let out. Even those buying second or third homes for their own families did not reveal how often or for how long the properties would be occupied.

The Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017 has refocused attention on the issues arising from absentee landlordism and official laxity – or possibly official collusion: many of Kensington and Chelsea Borough’s councillors are themselves landlords and active in the ambivalent regeneration projects which are supposed to provide both public and private housing, but which many see as vehicles for gentrification and, when housing poorer tenants, guilty of poor safety standards. 72 of the Conservative MPs who voted against a parliamentary motion to make homes ‘fit for human habitation’ were landlords; one was the newly appointed Police and Fire Minister, Nick Hurd.

Regulators haven’t been completely inert: the Bank of England’s Prudential Committee intends to crack down from September 2017 on portfolio landlords – those with four or more mortgaged buy-to-let properties – subjecting their businesses to stress tests to ensure that they have income streams and business plans in place.

Global, and local turbulence goes on, however. The company – a consortium of Malaysian investors – redeveloping the huge and iconic Battersea Power Station site on London’s riverside (‘the Everest of real estate’) promised in 2011 to include 636 affordable homes among its final range of ultra high-end housing units. In Summer 2017 it reduced this number to 386, saying the original commitment was based on lower construction costs and a seemingly unstoppable boom in newbuilds which since the Brexit vote has calmed considerably. At the Greenwich Peninsula site on the other side of London Hong Kong-based Knight Dragon have reduced the number of affordable homes from 35 to 21 percent.

 

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At the beginning of August 2017 The Labour Party condemned as ‘simply unacceptable’ the revelation, stemming from the accidental disclosure of council data following the Grenfell Tower fire, that 1652 properties were unoccupied in the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.  A Guardian report drew on the same information to publish the names of owners of vacant properties, among them oligarchs, foreign royalty and business speculators. This prompted the Liberal Democrats to demand increased surcharges on long-term empty homes, and London Mayor Sadiq Khan to promise to tackle the issue before the end of the year.

 

You can find more examples of the official jargon used in the field of development and regeneration here (I was particularly struck by one of the listed entries: 

Community Cohesion

There is currently no universally accepted definition of this.’)

http://www.jargon-buster-directory.com/development-regeneration-jargon.php

 

…and the latest from Battersea here, courtesy the Telegraph:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2017/07/22/inside-battersea-power-station-everest-real-estate-test-case/

 

 

BUZZWORDS AND BIZWORDS – 3

Keep abreast of ideas and innovation in the commercial, corporate and digital spheres by tracking the language generated by professionals. Here is another batch of – depending on your stance – picturesque neologisms, amusing buzz-terms, sinister obscurantist jargon… 

 

CREATIVE DIRECT MARKETING

 

 spouse ignoring the divorce petition

 

The marketing profession, obsessed as it is with sophisticated digital strategies, has woken up to an uncomfortable truth: significant groups of potential consumers are either hard to target via electronic channels or temperamentally resistant to its tactics. Older children still in the family home (aka fledglings), students living in flat-shares, young couples who have only just moved in together and empty-nest pensioners all represent life-stages and demographics who are susceptible to a radical new way of promoting brand engagement. Creative Direct Marketing or CDM is the fancy label for a strategy more simply defined as putting envelopes through letterboxes. For younger digital natives an old-fashioned letter is an intriguing novelty while a door drop is the best way to reach groups of students who may not show up on official registers, young partners on tight budgets who welcome offer leaflets, coupons and vouchers and nostalgic empty-nesters, for whom the postal service remains the most familiar and trustworthy way to receive information.

 

PRICE ANCHORING

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Sometimes the oldest tricks are the most effective, like the psychological technique familiar to salespeople, but to very few consumers, known as anchoring. The anchor effect (sometimes also known as focalism) works by introducing a striking piece of information (a financial opportunity for instance) or powerful memory (of a previous desire for something or a sense of satisfaction with ownership for example). This then dominates the subject’s subconscious thinking, pushing aside all the other factors that should influence their decision-making, while they are exposed to a real-life opportunity. At its simplest you present potential customers with a much-too-high figure – a spectacularly overpriced car or TV set for instance – then offer them the opportunity to buy at a lower price which may still be more than they could normally afford. ‘Setting the anchor’ (skilled practitioners can gauge its success by checking the purchaser’s body-language) exploits a so-called cognitive bias: humans tend to rely much too much on the first piece of information, or induced state of mind accessed when making subsequent decisions.*

 

INDUSTRY AGNOSTIC

 

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

 

Industry-agnostic, meaning associated with no particular branch of business, is term du jour for opportunistic investors who take advantage of perfect storms of economic and internal turbulence to put money into distressed assets; high-profile but vulnerable companies. These people talk about moving from value investing (i.e just- for-profit) to values investing (i.e still-for-profit, but focusing on projects with social aims), but crucially have no personal attachment to whatever branch of business they have selected. Adjectival industry agnostic or sector agnostic typically appears in marketing pitches (‘Industry Agnostic Practices for 360 Degree Business Consulting and Execution Facilitation’) or on the cvs of those – in IT, HR, finance – claiming universally applicable skills. Agnostic itself dates from 1869, then meaning unattached to any particular religious creed, formed from ‘a-‘, not and ‘gnostic’, believer in esoteric knowledge. In the last year or so, though, it has caught on right across the commercial spectrum in its new, broader sense. Cloud computing is said to be location-agnostic, applications are touted as platform agnostic, display agnostic, device agnostic. In just the last couple of days I have come across battery agnostic in the case of an electric car, not to mention vendor agnostic, storage agnostic and silicon agnostic.  A rarer recent synonym, BTW, for this sense of agnostic is atheist.

 

Send your exotic new terms to tony.thorne@kcl.ac.uk

All informants will be gratefully acknowledged in print – unless they prefer anonymity.

 

* Anchoring and other cognitive biases are described in this article from Mental Floss:

http://mentalfloss.com/article/68705/20-cognitive-biases-affect-your-decisions

 

BAKING-OFF – A PREMONITION?

I wrote this back in 2009 in an attempt to explain a novel term that was puzzling British professionals at the time. Little did I know…

BAKE-OFF

US cook-speak baffles Brits

 Reader N. S. (he prefers anonymity) was irritated by a message announcing an upcoming ‘spam-filter bake-off’. ‘I’m pretty sure I know what it means, but I wish they’d write in English, not American. What exactly does it mean, and where did it spring from?’

Sometimes an obscure slang term, the property of a tiny clique, a microniche or microscene, is first adopted by other groups of specialists for their jargon, then crosses over and becomes a respectable technical term – burn, meaning record onto CD or DVD is an example of this, and mashup, denoting a feature edited together from samples, is moving in the same direction. If it fills a crucial gap in the mainstream language such a word might eventually become part of everyday speech – blog is one such. Occasionally, though, this process is stymied by cultural difficulties along the way, as seems to be the case with bake-off where Brits are concerned.

In techno-jargon a bake-off is more properly described as a real-time interoperability testing event and refers to live testing of the functioning and/or compatibility of similar technical products or systems. This may involve, in engineering-speak, threat modelling, identifying and handling edge cases – problems that occur only at extreme operating parameters – and popping the hood (ie revealing the inner workings) of black-box products.

In the USA it can also mean competitive bidding by securities traders for investment banking business, while in media jargon: a script bakeoff takes place when a number of rival writers compete to rewrite part of a flawed movie or TV programme (often contributing ideas for free in the process).

Bake-off is actually a trade-mark whose owners, US food giant General Mills’ Pillsbury subsidiary sent ‘cease and desist’ notices to Columbia University and several software developers in 2001, forbidding them from using the term on their websites. Since 1949 Pillsbury have sponsored a nationwide recipe competition under the title Bake-off, but Columbia riposted that the term had already been in use as engineering jargon for twenty years.

The fact is that baking off just doesn’t feature in the UK’s cooking culture, such as it is, and so the expression continues to sound alien. Baked-off as adjective is slightly different. It’s used in automotive production and furniture design to mean finished off, inspired by the various heat processes used to laminate or seal.

(This first appeared in British AirwaysBusiness Life Magazine)

BIZWORDS AND BUZZWORDS – 2

Back in the 70s and 80s ‘Val-speak’ or ‘Valley-speak’ used to refer to the modish slang of the well-to-do girls living in and around the San Fernando Valley in Southern California. Now it is more likely to denote the jargon circulating in Northern California’s Silicon Valley and beyond, the language of startups, digital entrepreneurism and tech innovation.  This language has now, characteristically, itself been commodified, packaged and sold by some of its users (see below). In the UK I have also been tracking the new language of technology, digital marketing and finance, and the terms thrown up by so-called hipster culture. Here are three examples…

 

FLAT WHITE

 

We all know that the finance sector is a major driver of UK growth, especially and disproportionally in London, but there’s another sector currently outperforming it, a sector that as yet doesn’t even have a name. Douglas McWilliams of the Centre for Economics and Business Research reported in 2016 that ‘the firms that are driving growth are all those businesses that you can’t easily describe…a mixture of IT, culture and marketing – you can’t define them by any Standard Industrial Code.’ The catchiest catch-all term for this phenomenon is the Flat White Economy, so called because the bicycle-riding hipsters supposed to be coordinating it favour Flat Whites, a coffee style imported from Australia, over Lattes or Cappuccinos. This motley collection of creatives, digital marketers and start-up entrepreneurs, many centred on East London’s Silicon Roundabout hub (based on Old Street and Shoreditch, the third-largest technology startup cluster in the world after San Francisco and New York City) is not uncontroversial, with some commentators doubting its capacity for longer-term growth, others seeing it as part of an overheated, overrated London-centric bubble.

 

ULTRA-URBAN

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The hipsters who have been steadily colonising our inner cities over the last decade haven’t actually given us much new language: too precious for street slang, too cool for corporate jargon, they tend merely to over-use existing terms like ‘craft’, ‘artisan’, ‘vintage’ and ‘pop-up’. Two recent exceptions, however, are the expressions UltraUrban (as it is often spelled) and Epicentral. Both are being used literally to denote central areas (ultra-urban is a technical term from planning and waste–management) like London’s Silicon Roundabout,  Berlin’s Kreuzburg or Budapest’s VII District, but also as adjectives with approving overtones of edginess (if that’s not a contradiction), authenticity and cultural dominance, applied to clothing, galleries, avant-garde music, etc. Should you, however, be allergic to ultra-urban first movers and all they represent, the Yelp website has used word maps to identify hipster hot zones to avoid in a range of cities across the US, Canada and Europe. In related news the Office for National Statistics (ONS) announced in 2017 that non-dairy milk such as soya, rice and oat milk now features on the list it uses to track prices. The list is used to calculate CPIH, the headline measure of inflation. Gin also returns to the product basket after a 13-year absence following a rise in consumption and a growth in the number of ‘artisan’ gin producers. The ONS also said that their list will now include bicycle helmets.

 

LASTING SPACES

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The dynamic – and often precarious and ephemeral – nature of the latest retail operations has been symbolised by the term pop-up. Temporary outlets spring up in unexpected places and disappear, while the urban landscape is potentially blighted by the high-speed turnover of small traders and obsolescent businesses. Now, however, the first signs of an opposing trend have yielded a very different expression. Lasting spaces may refer to newly established green zones, to boutiques, markets and drop-in welfare centres intended to stay put and reinforce permanent communities, also to novel interpretations of living accommodation such as container homes. The notion of lasting spaces forms part of what has been dubbed the local love or love local phenomenon, taking hold in the US, Australia and the UK. As well as simply showcasing local produce and promoting local enterprises, trendspotters see this as an important innovation in consumerism allied to the SoLoMo (‘social-local-mobile’) movement bringing together smartphones, social media and hyperlocal commerce.

 

Promoters and marketers of Silicon-valley language can be found at:

 http://www.siliconvalleyspeak.com/

And here is one of the very few articles to highlight the language of innovation from a UK perspective:

http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20170313-the-secret-language-you-speak-without-realising-it?ocid=twcptl

BIZWORDS AND BUZZWORDS

For more than twenty years I wrote the Bizwords column for British Airways’ Business Life magazine. The series, which  highlighted examples of the most topical, colourful or outrageous jargon circulating in the corporate world, has just ended, but in its memory here are some of the last items published…

 

REPLICABILITY

What had once been a technical term – for the successful reduplication of test results – or a neutral definition – the ability to recreate a product, service or environment – threatened to become a dirty word in 2016. Replicability came to symbolise second – or perhaps third – thoughts by many progressives concerning the hipster design aesthetic and its global spread. Retro logos, distressed decors, artisan micro-brands and wired-up, gentrified workplaces, copied and imitated across markets and cultures have resulted in what columnist Kyle Chayka dubbed ‘AirSpace’, a faux-authentic, frictionless zone through which an affluent mobile elite can travel (checking for local recommendations from apps like Fourspace or Yelp, then Instagramming their discoveries to friends) without ever really leaving home territory. The replicated style, which, though much-mocked since its inception, once defined a desire for difference and originality, has morphed into a new all-enveloping mainstream.

 

 LEAD-MAGNET

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 Digital Marketing is a non-stop – and seemingly unstoppable – generator of new terminology, so agencies must help novices to keep up by posting glossaries of the latest buzzwords. Turning prospects into leads into actual customers involves, in the jargon, directing traffic to your landing page (ideally frictionless) or welcome gate which is likely to feature a lead-magnet, aka opt-in bribe, a benefit such as a free consultation, free trial, discount offer, or a content-upgrade like a toolkit or guide to induce the visitor to give you their contact details. That is a conversion, the start of a relationship with the site visitor who should then go on to register with you, follow you on social media and/or purchase something. (Measure success by your conversion rate, failure by your bounce-rate). The series of steps you use to draw in the customer, from ads via webpages through interactions all the way to payment is known as the funnel.

 

W.E.I.R.D

Image result for rich western students

If a colleague tells you that your target demographic is WEIRD, will you know how to react? The letters of the acronym stand for ‘western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic’ and are used to point up a crucial flaw in the studies of human behaviour underpinning much global marketing. The problem is that the samples on which assumptions are based are not representative: ‘Westerners’ are thought to make up around 96% of respondents in psychological studies, US citizens at least 68%. W.E.I.R.D subjects tend to be outliers, exceptions, in terms of many traits such as visual and spatial perception, notions of fairness, cooperation – even in how to design and respond to survey questionnaires. Differences between so-called traditional or collectivist societies and the individualist west are well-known, but even within a modern multiculture like the US, UK or Australia ‘human’ responses vary according to ethnicities, microcultures and niches. Still searching for universals, analysts now have to grapple with the much more complex reality evoked by their latest buzzword: superdiversity.

 

CLIMATARIAN

A raft of novel foodie expressions reflects the huge impact of the gastronomy economy (not to be confused with economy gastronomy which is one such term meaning luxury cooking on a budget). The progressive connoisseur and the green militant have recently come together in the form of the climatarian, an activist consumer who combats climate change by favouring poultry, pork and sustainable fish instead of CO2 culprits beef, lamb or venison, insists on unfrozen produce from sources close at hand to counter refrigeration and transport emissions and uses 100% of every meal by processing skin, bones, vegetable offcuts, etc. In his lexicon entitled ‘Eatymology’ US author Josh Friedland has collected more examples of the new food-speak, including carrot mob, a so-called reverse boycott whereby crowds of enthusiasts descend on an outlet in order to celebrate its healthy credentials, and – less healthily perhaps – gastrosexual, an individual who uses cooking prowess in order to seduce. In a similar vein militant locavores (promoters of local produce) if male are now known as brocavores, while food porn is flagged by the hashtag #foodspo.

 

I’m always collecting jargon, buzzwords and new and exotic usages like these. Please contact me to donate examples (and you will be credited in upcoming articles and publications!)

 

 

HOLACRACY

I wrote about this new notion which claims to combine the agile organisation with a peer-to-peer workplace for British Airways Business Life in 2014, but judging from a recent Quartz article  (the link follows below), the concept continues to be influential – and controversial…

 

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Taking its name from the Greek holon, meaning an autonomous unit, the very latest thing in organisational theory promotes a new and radical flattening of the pyramid. Embracing holacracy, as online shoe retailer Zappos has done, means moving from a traditional hierarchy to distributed leadership whereby managers and job titles are replaced by work teams (known as circles) who choose their own tasks. According to its often messianic proponents the system involves ‘thinking beyond shareholders and stakeholders’, ‘dispensing with parental heroic leaders’ and ‘baking empowerment into the core of the organization by ‘detecting dissonance and processing tensions’. There are a very few successful firms – the Gore company of Gore-Tex fame is one – who have been virtually managerless for decades, but critics of the holacracy movement claim that it only works for outliers – quirky SMEs, local or family companies on the margins – and can’t provide the sophisticated governance and discipline required in larger and more complex corporations.

 

 

Zappos is struggling with Holacracy because humans aren’t designed to operate like software

MOMENT MARKETING ….and COMPARISONING

Two more recent buzzwords, to reignite the debate that I delight in: are these ludicrous and redundant formulations, designed to bamboozle and bemuse, or are they valid – even laudable – examples of creative lexical innovation? 

 

MOMENT MARKETING

 Inspired by the 34 minutes in 2013 during which Oreo cookies seized on a power cut at the Super Bowl to tweet ‘…you can still dunk in the dark’, moment marketing, also known as adaptive or reactive marketing, is advertising’s current obsession. The concept stretches from running digital campaigns off the back of real-world events (Paddy Power and Mini cars capitalising on the horse meat scandal, Warburtons bakery on a royal birth) to personalising customer relationships by tracking what consumers are doing at particular times of day – accessing different media, planning journeys or caring for kids for instance – and recording significant dates in their lives. Brands can emphasise authenticity and spontaneity by reacting speedily to trending topics – not just sports but showbiz, politics, weather – cutting to a minimum the time it takes to get from ideation to posting. In the jargon this is described as moving from real-time marketing to right-time marketing, linking offline to online to exploit hype-cycles and micro-moments.

The notion’s topicality is captured in TVTY agency’s new year message for 2017…

“As we have seen in 2016, careful moment planning – the process of deciding which moments matter most to a target audience – can lead to exciting results…we’ve seen the Germans and Italians win gold at the Olympics, the FMCG sector scored big at the Euros and there was a huge surge in ad-jacking during the Super Bowl. But 2017 is set to be even bigger and marketers need to ensure moment planning is a top priority…we have highlighted the events that will capture the attention of millions of consumers across the globe in our new tent pole event calendar.”

 

COMPARISON

‘Before making buying decisions millennials prefer to comparison on digital media’ is an example of ‘nerbing’, the converting of nouns into verbs (conference, signature and caveat are other recent examples), which business jargon delights in. In the same way hero has morphed from familiar noun to trendy verb in the last couple of years, as in ‘we will hero the women who align with our brand values’. Verbs may also become nouns, witness the ask, the build and the recover, while some jargoneers have turned solve into a noun and made solution a verb. Incentive was transformed first into incentivise and later abbreviated to incent. Another twist is to create new plurals, for example ‘practitioners will share practical learnings and advice on how brands can scale their operations across geographies.’ Egregious errors or desperate attempts at novelty depending on your take, these innovations may sometimes signal a subtle shift in meaning, so that comparison as verb refers not to comparing in general but specifically to online sites.

More on ‘nerbing’ from an early piece in Buzz Feed:

https://www.buzzfeed.com/jwherrman/the-verb?utm_term=.spvE8aXO8d#.cdEQYNK7YA

 

TONY THORNE

 

Send buzzwords, jargon and new and exotic usages to tony.thorne@kcl.ac.uk