The sad truth is that words matter to only a few of us
Even among civil service mandarins, addiction to bad language starts at the very top
Even sticklers end up buying toasters that abuse language, because a) there aren’t any that don’t, and b) the quality of the toast trumps the words that pop up alongside
Two bad things can happen when you get back to work after a holiday: one small and the other big. The small thing is that your computer password has expired; the big one is that your job has expired too.
Both happened to me last week on my return from a week away. The first was predictable, though still a mild downer as it involved dreaming up a string of new passwords all of which were rejected by the computer as insufficiently unmemorable.
The expiry of my job wasn’t predictable at all. As the management bullshit correspondent, I always thought I had the most stable position in journalism. The bullshit market, as I’ve often pointed out, has only one phase – the bull phase – so there is never a shortage of things to write about.
Yet in the space of one short week two disruptive things happened. First was the news that UK civil servants have been banned from using 30 ugly words. There will be no more “delivering” – unless pizzas are involved; no more “empowerment” or “facilitation”, and nothing will ever be “key” again, apart from things that fit in locks. “Going forward” – another banned phrase – there will be no more “fostering” without children and no more “driving” without steering wheels.
A couple of days later Harvard Business Review published a blog with the title “Your Company is Only as Good as Your Writing”. Kyle Wiens, chief executive of iFixit, argued that good writing makes the difference between a good business and a bad business – a sale or no sale. From the rapturous response, his readers seemed to agree.
While my back was turned, there has been a pincer movement from either side of the Atlantic. On this side, the weapon is compulsion, while on the US side it is an appeal to sense; either way, for a bullshit correspondent it is worrying news.
Wondering what to do with the rest of my life, I started mournfully sifting through my emails, but almost at once came on something cheering. Howard Schultz had been asked if Starbucks planned any more acquisitions, to which he replied: “I would say that we have enough to digest in the near-term, and there’s nothing candidly in our sightline that would suggest that we’re involved in engaging anything that we’re going to acquire.”
This is diabolical. It is 34 words, where one would do. It is self-important, horribly waffly, and makes a queasy nod towards honesty that makes one suspect the reverse.