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Language Fraud: Or F-You, F-Off, and Other Pleasantries
I remember a time when the F-word was for failure in school. In addition, on rare occasions, it was used as the absolute nuclear meltdown obscenity when every other expletive seemed to have the impact of marshmallows thrown against a wall.
Today, it is fairly well common in business, and in every occupation. That's okay. It is a solid Anglo-Saxon word made popular by leading ladies who appear in almost the same type of romantic comedies in which Doris Day acted in yesteryear. Only she said, "Aw, fudge."
Since the word has received institutional status and most likely is even used by your blue-haired grandmother on occasion, there are more business terms I find more vulgar, those that I place in the category of language fraud. These are generally terms that have one meaning for the person uttering them, and quite another for the person on the receiving end. But first, let's examine the F-Word, quaintly.
The first time I actually heard a woman say the F-word was in 1970 or thereabouts - the Vietnam War was going strong, and I was asked by my news service to do a story on an underground newspaper, this one near the U.S. Army's Fort Campbell on the Tennessee-Kentucky border. That's right, before I was a business big shot, I was a reporter.
I was shocked.
To write those three above words today seems so decadent, so na?ve, so totally sheltered - but I wasn't. I had already earned my reporting stripes covering civil rights riots in America's south and unearthing slum-housing scams in Tampa, Fla.
The young lady editor who made the remark, rather casually in referring to the war, wore faded Levi's, khaki shirt and white, low-topped tennis shoes. She had long blonde hair, not willowy, but straight, and wore no lipstick. She had a thin mouth, and a wry and defiant smile. She was cute in a pixie kind of way, but by no means beautiful.
Want me to tell you more, maybe what perfume she wore? I believe it was Shalimar. Such was the impact of a lady saying the F-word, something today that is as common at the Rialto Theater as buttered popcorn and those chewy Jujubes.
While it remains beeped on most mainstream TV channels, the fact of the utterance remains rather obvious. Late night talk show hosts interviewing guests are known to joke about the possibility of four-letter words being beeped out. The Washington Post in late June 2004 used it on its pages for only the fourth time in the history of the newspaper, though numerous times it has dealt in euphemisms such as "he used a vulgar expletive for intercourse" or as in "F_ _ _", or occasionally, "F-You."
Sen. John Kerry, the former Democrat presidential candidate, used the word in Rolling Stone Magazine when running for president of the United States. Vice President Dick Cheney uttered the expletive, I assume as an action verb, when he suggested on the U.S Senate floor, of all places, that Sen. Pat Leahy "F-off."
The Senate, for those of you who are not that familiar, is a place where people refer to one another with comity and superlatives, no matter how much they would like to put the other's head in a meat grinder. The practice goes back more than 200 years.
"Mr. President (the person sitting in the presiding chair), I would like to ask the distinguished and esteemed senator from the great state of New York, if he would allow me a few minutes of his allotted floor time for a few comments about….blah, blah, blah."
The exchange between the vice president and Leahy, a nut, berries, and environmental senator from Vermont, caused somewhat of a mini-scandal, though in terms of hurricane strength scarcely turn a leaf in the vice presidential bluster.
Cheney was not apologetic. It seems the vice president was upset because Leahy had referred to his previous connections with the conglomerate Halliburton, the one that has raked in a gazillion dollars in various Iraqi contracts. Cheney was CEO of Halliburton pre-election. He had often been referred to as the vice president from Halliburton.
"I didn't like the fact that after he had done so, then he wanted to act like, you know, everything's peaches and cream," Cheney said. "And I informed him of my view of his conduct in no uncertain terms. And as I say, I felt better afterwards." That's pretty tough talk from this would-be cowboy from Wyoming, the extreme hawk who somehow managed to avoid the Vietnam War draft.
This is not the first time Cheney, a serial obscenity user, had gotten into hot water. During a presidential campaign, he referred to New York Times reporter Adam Clymer-and it was recorded - as a posterior orifice, or, indelicately, an asshole.
My own view of the use of the F-word is obviously complex, and has more psychological underpinnings than former President Bill Clinton's telling of his life-evidently minute by minute - in a 900-page book of emotional sorghum. As I grew in the newspaper/wire service business, I began to learn that the obscenity was one of the 20 or so basic words in the journalist's everyday language. Balance this with a Southern Baptist upbringing in which the word hell could only be used in a biblical context. Still, I generally only use it with the guys and occasionally with a female executive assistant who is witness to all my intemperate eruptions. I never recall using it with the first Ms. Willard, the second Ms. Willard, or for that matter, the third Ms. Willard to come. I have never used it around anyone's children, particularly my own.
I joke that I allot myself 10 F-words a month, though I probably go over this meager allotment by dozens. And, truth be known, I thought it was kind of endearing when blue-eyed actress Cameron Diaz told a goofball Ben Stiller, "I'm just f-----g with you" at the sweet conclusion of the romantic comedy "There's Something About Mary". Still, I am queasy of its use. It leaves the after taste of turpentine mouthwash, even when preceded by an pre-apology, such as, "Excuse me for using this word, but this guy is a real……" I find women sometimes take this tack a lot, particularly in Eastern Europe where it entered the vocabulary only a dozen or so years ago.
The F-word is just one in a series that seem to be part and parcel of everyday business life, and contributes very little to commercial discourse. Admittedly, it does have more impact than those silly "emotion" icons some people use on e-mails. Maybe the problem with those icons is that there is not enough emotional range and an F-You icon should be added. I have no idea which form it would take, or even color. I would hope it wouldn't be too graphic.
All told, however, the word probably has more gutter elegance to it then when business people use language fraud such as, "what's the bottom line" and "all I want is a level playing field" - weasel phrases all, but then that is another story entirely.
Well, The Other Story
You are timidly asking what all this has to do with the professional business. Well, most everything. When I took freshman English in college, it was more rigorous than I would imagine Army Special Forces training. Students were mustered out right and left, and the trick was you had to pass Dr. Riddick's course to advance to the sophomore year. Few of us, even we who had written for high school newspapers and pretentiously read Faulkner and Joyce, could figure out when to use "I or "me" and generally copped out with a "myself". I worked on the city desk of the Orlando Sentinel after school, but I really didn't have a clue. I must have driven the city editor to distraction.
Punctuation was something else entirely. We threw commas and semicolons and exclamation points around like they were hand grenades. Diagramming a sentence was ten times more complicated than figuring Euclid triangles and algebra, though a few of us were challenged by those courses as well. Dr. Riddick changed all that. He was a mild-manner fellow in his 50s with snow-white hair. He could and probably was somebody's doting grandfather. Put him in a classroom, however, and he became the Hun named Attila.
If you missed something so basic as a subject/verb agreement, it was as if you had farted during a funeral prayer. If you misspelled a word - particularly since a dictionary was suppose to be a Darwinian appendage - you were marked down not one grade but two. Dr. Riddick was a legend at our little junior college. However, about 50 million business people never had the benefit of this little guy, and the business world is one big, fat idiot when it comes to the English language.
This is particularly disturbing because e-mail has transformed written commerce as the greatest invention for communication since hieroglyphics were scribbled on the inside of Egyptian tombs. The efficient secretary has gone the way of the Dodo bird, near total extinction. More than ever, we are being asked to commit to written communication ourselves, and many of us are seriously challenged by this.
Nowhere is this any more prevalent than in the advertising industry, where copywriters and creative directors can toss out cute, memorable lines, and come up with ideas that stay with us for the ages. However, many can't put together a coherent copy block. I write this line just after reading a small booklet from a major advertising firm, exhorting its hundreds of creatives to be more, well, creative. Other than the occasional misspelling, subjects and verbs collide with the impact of a 10-car pile-up on Interstate 95. In a supposedly learned tome, the 25 or so pages have sentences that were put together as if a collection of scattered fiddlesticks. One wonders if the august founders of the firm--names as synonymous with great English language usage as Mr. Webster and Star Trek's Patrick Stewart--are turning restlessly in their graves. If the folks who are suppose to be in the mass communications business fail miserably in the business of communicating business, then where does that leave the accountant, the lawyer, and all the myriad professional consultants?
A Cacophony of Clich?s
The first time a new and clever phase or word is used it is like man discovering a new star among the glittering planets in the galaxy. It is colorful. It is insightful. It is, in fact, useful. Eventually, however, it is like every other pebble on the beach, but not nearly as colorful, as insightful or as useful as the tried, the true and the correct. It becomes plagiarism by the multitudes.
Jeddy Levar, a name that is relatively easy to remember, taught my first course in journalism. We only remember professors that had some kind of an impact on us, either positive or negative. Levar said: "The best word for 'he said, she said, or they said is in fact said'." It stuck with me for a lifetime.
The Level Playing Field Is For Suckers
Let's face it. In global business, there literally should be no "end of the day", even metaphorically. What CEO really, in his heart of hearts, wants "a level playing field"? He might as well wander aimlessly around the business world with a sign on his back that says, "Kick Me". This "bottom line" thing is really confusing, particularly when used as "Let's get to the bottom line" or "The bottom line is". There is rarely a bottom line. There is always wiggle room. It has become a paper gauntlet, tossed down at the beginning of debate, or as an absolute when in reality is a very subjective term.
Clich? City: Advertising
The advertising industry has given birth to thousands of cute slogans that once were as fresh as the Pillsbury doughboy but now are like week-old croissants. After 20-plus years, "Where's the beef?", the utterance of a little old lady named Clara Peller for Wendy's hamburgers still crops up on occasion, but apparently is suffering a generational death, only 108,000 mentions on Google. However, in 1984, former Vice President Walter Mondale used it in a debate against President Ronald Reagan in reference to the latter's alleged lack of a program. It didn't work. Mondale was swamped in the general election. So much for the transferal of commercial marketing to politics. Dipping back even further, it was common in the 1970's to quote Alka Seltzer's "I can't believe I ate the whole thing", but today such an utterance would draw quizzical stares. In the 21st Century, Budweiser gave us Wazzzzzzzzzzzzzzup? Thankfully, this lasted about as long as a Hollywood hair cut.
Acronyms: Can We Buy A Vowel
It is amazing how many people come up with strong, image-packed names for their companies and then truncate those jewels by reducing them to a couple of nondescript letters.
There is the madding tendency by some - clients, vendors, and often our own people - to shorten The Willard Group to TWG. Granted, when most people think of Willard they think of a movie by the same name and thousands of rats running wild. There was also Frances Willard, the prohibitionist (the evidence suggests she was not even vaguely related to my immediate family), a company called Willard Batteries, and a song written by the late John Stewart, discussing "Willard, he's a loner…" Of course, there is the famous Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., but my only connection there has been as a guest. Therefore, we're not talking Rockefeller here, but a mutt's pedigree is all I have, and I am proud of it.
In our own case, TWG (The Willard Group) was also the initials of an oligarch-run company in Eastern Europe called Trans World Group that was about 54 million times larger than our little company was. Likewise, it could be confused with The Washington Group, a Ukrainian Diaspora organization in the District of Columbia area.
IBM can get away with being called IBM instead of International Business Machines because it has been around since Adam and Eve begat calculators. Few people under the age of fifty would even recognize the actual name. On the other hand, Hewlett-Packard these days is going by the initials HP, which dehumanizes what was a great company started in the garage of the curious Mr. Packard. This is a shame. Now the name sounds like a brand of motor oil.
AT The End of The Day
"At the end of the day", we could go on forever never knowing "the bottom line" while we desperately seek "a level playing field". However, this is merely the "tip of the iceberg", and "at this point in time" we should move on to more clich?s, several of the new ones I just introduced. Of the two last offending phrases, "tip of the iceberg" is merely trite. I find the latter reference to time so offensive that it causes me to break out in ugly hives, beat the kids and kick the dog.
A website with which I have some familiarity conducted a poll of its readers (5,000) and they voted "at the end of the day" the most irritating phrase that has crept into the English language. My personal preference (it came in second), the one that has the effect of fingernails across a chalkboard, is "at this point in time". I think it is the prevalence factor, as well as the fact it is used by so many supposedly learned persons who have alphabet degrees and talk like English butlers. For some reason, it is difficult for these scholars to realize that the last two words relating to time are about as necessary as adding Coca-Cola to Jack Daniels. One is simply language fraud and in bad taste while the other is sacrilege.
It is interesting to note that that third runner-up in this horse race was the word "like", used as a form of emphasis. "Like" I wish I had never started this book. He is, well, "like" a big, fat idiot. Man, "like", you gotta be kidding. This one personally doesn't bother me a whole lot. "Like" I rarely see it used unless by pre-teen girls who still croon over Ricky Martin. Coming in fourth place was the ever present "with all due respect", which one generally utters when there is virtually no due respect intended. Actually, though I assume this is a big problem, I don't see it that much except in Victorian novels by Jane Austin, and then it is rather charming. Frankly Speaking
There are a whole series of clich?s that set you up for the proverbial fall, those often used by traveling medicine men and politicians. However, as I believe Will Rogers said, I repeat myself.
The PR Business
There are two ways of looking at perception management. Some would say it is the moral equivalent of whitewashing a house infected with termites. I think that is the jaded view, for generally the intent is to help solve the underlying problem and then manage perceptions. It is not the initiative, however, with which I have a problem. It is the wording "perception management". If I close my eyes, I can visualize Joseph Goebbels standing before Adolph Hitler suggesting they had a little PR problem and were going to have to manage perceptions.
However, it is not just in the PR world that a dizzying array of names and acronyms has taken over. The peddler of remedies, often branded self-help, is the modern day equivalent of the 18th century elixir salesman. He has a compound for every possibility. A recent book listed nearly 70 miracle cures, everything from one-minute management to total quality control as branded remedies for all business ailments, including, I believe, lock jaw and athlete's foot. Therefore, something like perception management is described as a proprietary tool of revolutionary proportions - nothing short of oracle - when in fact it is 95 per cent common sense, and what PR folks do on their best days every day. The same for "360 degree branding", "the whole egg" approach and the 101 different gimmicks applied to basic products to give them marketing spin. And that is the purpose. To differentiate one company's metaphorical headache remedy from another. This is not all together bad - but it is an abuse of words best described as common sense.
Minor Language Fraud
Some of them are jarringly obvious. The term "24/7" has come to represent the company that is available around the clock to serve the clients. This is generally a throw away line because the better part of those 24 hours the client is snoozing or watching "Friends" reruns on TV, and two of those seven days he is stuck in traffic on the way to the beach. It is, more than anything, a marketing gimmick. I have used it myself, though with no real success. On the clich? list is the word "awesome", which I personally think is a rather influential and awesome adjective. However, I assume the word receives clich? status as a one-word exclamation point, as in the high decibel AWESOME, sometimes followed by MAN, or "Awesome, man". Again, I thought that went out with the mid-50s Beatnik poetry, but I don't get out much, and am probably misinformed.
There are several terms, often related in some form to business, that crop up frequently. These are "blue-sky thinking" and "ballpark figure".
The first one, I confess, was really a puzzle the first time I heard it 20-years ago. I immediately pictured something more visual, more relaxing, and more beautiful than sitting in a stuffy conference room tossing ideas around. I soon learned that blue-sky thinking had less to do with the blue sky - or even for that matter thinking - than a contemplative 15 minutes in a shower or a walk in a park, both more conducive to thinking. Blue-sky thinking is, in essence, a forced march toward a creative solution. I don't recommend it for anyone, unless, of course, they wear combat boots. It tends to dumb down good ideas, rather than promote them.
"Ballpark figure", in terms of business, is a phase tossed out lightly for estimations that bear not the slightest resemblance to what will be the actual cost. Further, its first usage was probably by someone who had never seen the inside of a ballpark - I am assuming baseball here. These days, the interiors of baseball parks are actually a little smaller than in olden days to--one would assume--promote excitement with more home runs. Thus, to club one out of the old Cincinnati River Front stadium at centerfield you had to clobber it 420 feet. The new stadium, with the pretentious name of Great American Stadium, is 15 feet shorter. Therefore, the next time someone says they are going to give you the ballpark figure, ask which ballpark they have in mind.
Alas, there is also the incessant comparison to "it's not rocket science", as if rocket science were rocket science. After about 50 years of trying, we are just now tossing space junk within several thousand miles of Saturn. The most tangible things some believe to come from rocket travel are a few rocks from the moon and an orange -flavored drink called Tang. Compare this to something really difficult, such as filling out an Internal Revenue Service form.
Another term often used in business to spur creativity is "to think outside the box" or, as it is sometimes known, "to color outside the lines". What box? I have indicated to my colleagues that I want them thinking outside the box, around the box, in the box and on top of the box. I want them to create a new box. As to coloring outside the lines, the metaphor is a stretch, even for kindergarten kids who actually do color outside the lines. However these, like so many other sayings, when first uttered, were like creative thunderbolts. Today they are as quaint as a 1950s rocker saying, "See you later alligator. After while, crocodile." (Which, by the way, in a nod to nostalgia, I say to my littlest daughter all the time.)
Sometimes clich?s appear which really are nonsensical, but are given credibility because they appeared in a movie, book or on the back of a cereal box. One is "pushing the envelope". You're a smart person. In the abstract, does that make sense to you - pushing an envelope. Why wouldn't we pull the envelope? Why wouldn't we just open the damn envelope? Or maybe put a stamp on it. But push the envelope. That makes absolutely no sense.
However, we all know from the movie and Tom Wolfe's book "The Right Stuff" in 1979 about the early astronauts and test pilots and that pushing the envelope meant to test the boundaries of most anything, endurance, taste, your wife. It fell into what I would call the cool lexicon, along with another clich? from the same book, "screw the pooch", which means to make a grievous mistake as it relates to aviation, generally crashing. Actually -- and this sort of takes us full circle -- the original military term was F-the dog, meaning to goof off. As you can see, because we are squeamish about such things, we continue to beep out the obscenity.
Certain situations lead to an avalanche of political clich?s that find a way into everyday usage. The Watergate era of Richard Nixon inspired many, including the suffix "gate" as it related to most any scandal, such as Korea-gate, Billy-gate, Billing-gate and computer-gate. Each gate was a clearly defined moment of historic potholes. Nearly every U.S. President since Richard Nixon had had gate attached to his term at least once, with the possible exception of Gerald Ford, who was harmless, and George Bush No. 2, whose miscues couldn't be confined to Yellowstone National Park, much less inside a gate.
Perhaps the most colorful comment, now clich?, which stemmed from the Watergate hearings, was uttered by Republican Congressman Barber Conable, who suggested a "smoking gun" when an office tape recording clearly seemed to implicate President Nixon in covering up another clich?, "the third rate burglary". It is altogether possible that Conable--who has faded from memory-was not the first to use the smoking gun phrase, but he was the first to get the credit for it. As the late columnist Dorothy Parker suggested about someone's acting talent, we have now run the gamut of clich?s from A to B, realizing there are billions of others, and that, "at the end of the day" most will never be buried under what we all wish would be that proverbial "level playing field".
Gorilla Bite 1. Clich?s are not all bad. If you are talking to or writing to a man from the planet Krypton, the phrase will be fresh as the snap, crackle and pop of Rice Krispies. If your target audience has its feet firmly planted on terra firma, you will elicit a yawn as a serial clich? user. Try to be inventive. Remember, somebody came up with whzzzzsup.
Gorilla Bite 2: The F-Word should be the last verbal weapon in your arsenal, or maybe the second, depending on whether you have Tourette syndrome. In the latter case, only 10 per cent of you have a related condition called coprolalia, which is the swearing disease. Practice saying, "Oh, Fudge." Give yourself 10 F-words a month, and fine yourself a double-scotch for every one you go over that amount. I'm obviously F-ing with you here.
Gorilla Bite 3: Be especially leery of anything that can be done in one minute, as in The One Minute Manager. Depending on age, it takes 60 seconds for most of us to tie our shoelaces. What good is a One Minute Manager when it takes an hour and 20 minutes just to go through the line at the Safeway? Take the previous sentences and put them in a larger context, remembering that 7-11 stores are open 24-hours-a-day as opposed to 7 until 11, and that 360-degree branding would be more interesting to clients if it were called 359 and one-half degree branding. Toss all those old business books with new fangled theories into the waste bin, and buy Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. You will learn more.
Gorilla Bite 4: Don't use acronyms in your business name unless they are too cool to ignore, or they have been around since God created sweat. If my company were named Corporation Of Official Laplanders then C.O.O.L. might pass muster. However, there is only one IBM. Everybody else with acronyms is simply dog food, the cheap variety, not Alpo.