From the January 2016 issue of The Rotarian
I don’t remember exactly when the menu at Starbucks started bothering me, but it must have been almost the first time I stepped into one. It wasn’t the range of products or the drinks themselves – which I enjoyed. It was the names of three coffee sizes: tall, grande, and venti, otherwise known as “small, medium, and large.”
For years I engaged in a kind of guerrilla campaign of not using them.
“I’ll take a large, please.”
“Yes, large, thank you.”
This was petty and annoying, I know, but I couldn’t help myself. I wasn’t even sure why it irked me, until I realized it was something quite simple: a flagrant disregard for meaning, the notion that you can take a word and bend it to your own purposes. To make a small into a tall felt like a glimpse of a world where people could buy a word, gut it, then fill it with whatever they wanted. Language is an agreement, a social contract. This felt like a violation.
Changing the word doesn’t change the thing it describes. It only creates a wider gulf between rhetoric and reality. Using the Italian word for large (grande) doesn’t make a cup any bigger. And calling another one a “venti” doesn’t make it anything but the largest of the three drinks on the menu. By historical standards, they all contain large amounts of coffee. But we are not ordering historically. We are ordering comparatively.
These may seem like small concerns. But I can’t help feeling they are a bellwether of some broader change. In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell lamented the creep of clichés and jargon into politicians’ speeches whenever they didn’t want people to understand what they were saying (or didn’t themselves know what they meant). Their words hid their meaning instead of clarifying it.
“When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink,” Orwell wrote. He was worried that people might dismiss his concerns as sentimental, and I share his fear. Who cares about the Starbucks menu? Big deal. Yet there is reason for concern. We are so inundated with meaningless words that we have grown numb to them.
Recently, I sat down in a coffee shop and overheard a young woman tell a friend that she needed to do some “concepting.” (Meaning, I assumed, coming up with some ideas.) In some work environments, entire meetings are conducted in this innovative language, which often contains three or four times the volume of words necessary. In which “I’m noticing you have a gap with your arrival time” means “You’re late.” Or “Why don’t you frame up this project for me” means “Explain this project.” Other Orwellian examples include things like “deep dive,” “low-hanging fruit,” and “continuous improvement,” which is neither continuous nor an improvement.
Perhaps the most egregious offenders are in the field of marketing, and one of the most shameless practitioners is David Shing, a self-styled “digital prophet” (an abuse of both words) who calls himself “Shingy” and who strikes me with a nameless terror. With astonishing ease, he separates words from their meaning, coining terms and phrases as he breathes. “I grew up in the age of information,” he says in one video. “We are now currently in the middle of the age of social. As you know, fundamentally it’s changed, but where it’s headed is the world of context or interest. …” The head spins as it grasps for meaning. He’s like a living Starbucks menu. (Translation: “He’s not showing up in the sense-making space.”)
This is the vein that satirists Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf mine in their recent book, Spinglish: The Definitive Dictionary of Deliberately Deceptive Language, a long list of words that have been intentionally drained of meaning in order to obfuscate the things they purport to describe.
Three decades ago, the Soviet Union sent “bio-robots” (humans) to clean up Chernobyl. More recently, surveillance has become “data collection.” People who are drunk are “overrefreshed.” Shredding sensitive papers is “document management.” Failure is “deferred success.” A dishwasher is a “utensil maintenance professional.” A butcher is a “meat technologist.” (Either can be “dehired,” “decruited,” or “deinstalled” at any time.) A profit is a “negative deficit” and a revenue decline is “negative growth,” while losses are “deficit enhancement.” (That is, assuming no “data massage” has taken place.)
Death is “failure to fulfill one’s wellness potential.”
A small is a “tall.”
Beard and Cerf try to distinguish everyday jargon from deliberately deceptive words. But Orwell made no such distinction. To him they sprang from the same well: a carelessness about, or even a hostility to, the meaning of words.
“A scrupulous writer,” Orwell wrote, “in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?”
The alternative is “simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you – even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent – and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.”
These concerns may not be new. But today, words flow freely across our screens, via our blogs and tweets and posts and likes. That increased speed may be why the distance we have traveled since Orwell’s time seems so great, and why I find it so alarming. We have arrived at a place where images have unrivaled power, where surfaces obscure everything underneath, where we value branding far more than understanding. As writer Daniel Pink has observed, we are all in sales. We are all small, trying to tell the world we are tall.
This feels exhausting. It’s always better to see things clearly. And the solution hasn’t changed since Orwell: “What is above all needed,” he wrote, “is to let the meaning choose the word, not the other way around.”
Frank Bures is a frequent contributor to The Rotarian.