Aug. 2 (Bloomberg) -- In 16th-century England, Thomas Gresham formulated what is now known as Gresham’s law, which stipulates that bad money drives out good. Paper money tends to circulate more freely than silver, and silver more freely than gold, because people hoard whatever type of money is seen as best. It’s why we spend those torn dollar bills first.
I have no problem with this. It might even be a good thing, because it expands the money supply and credit. But I do have a problem when a similar dynamic takes over language, as bad, bureaucratic, bulky and bothersome words drive out simple, short, clear and good ones.
Examples would fill a dictionary. There is corporate speak such as actualize, differentiate, facilitate, repurpose and synthesize. But this is mere detritus, easily swept away. What bothers me more is when a fluffy, pretentious and bureaucratic word replaces a simpler one, often with a history.
With the advent of the personal computer, “word processing” began to replace “typing” as the preferred term. This was an unnecessary change: Fingers were still placed on letters on a keyboard, and sentences still transmitted to a page or screen.
Similarly, I noticed a few years ago that a public elementary school had renamed its library “the media center,” as if an old and distinguished word such as “library” was unable to encompass information-delivery devices such as microfilm or the Internet. Simply updating or expanding a technology doesn’t require a new word.
There is value in what came before. Apple Inc.’s Steve Jobs won converts to his Macintosh computers by having users “paste” and “cut,” rather than “insert” and “delete,” as in the Microsoft world. He wasn’t dumbing down. That continuity of language helped this new tool, the computer, establish itself.
The allure of most bad words is that we think they make us sound smarter. Because we associate complexity with smartness, complicated words tend to replace simpler ones. Once “shipping” was the term to move any sort of package or cargo, whether by boat, train or air. This is still true in some sectors. The U.S. Postal Service, bless its heart, still has a department of “shipping.” But many people and companies prefer the term “logistics,” which essentially means just moving things around on a schedule. I’m sure this justifies several dollars more per hour or pound.
Another offender is “infrastructure.” Once unknown in public discourse and used only by the military, it now pops up in headlines. It has replaced simpler, more descriptive terms, particularly “public works” and the even older “internal improvements.”
Another fancy term in management circles is “metrics.” We now ask about the metrics of a project, rather than its measurements, statistics or, simply, numbers.
Fellow lovers of simple language probably have their own candidates for worst words. My own is “brand.” I’d like to blast it out of the air whenever it floats across a conference room table.
It once had a specific and legitimate use: the name of a company or a product. It was McDonald’s hamburgers, Campbell’s soup, Clorox bleach and Kleenex tissues. But about two decades ago it oozed into other fields. It became a verb -- always a bad sign -- and eventually even an occupation.
Branding as a concept is bad because it advances a notion both seductive and appalling, which is that we can change our image or public face as easily as letters on a movie marquee. It suggests falsity, a con, sleight of hand.
The better, simpler and more sober term is “reputation.” It doesn’t mean exactly the same thing, but it’s better for what it is lacking. Our parents taught us that reputations are made slowly, and can be lost quickly. A reputation is not a projection. In 1982, when Johnson & Johnson famously recalled all its Tylenol products after several deaths from intentionally tainted products, the company wasn’t building its brand. It was building its reputation.
I may sound like a linguistic Luddite. I will concede that most disciplines have and need their own specialized language. Architects, for example, talk about “the program” of a building -- meaning what it will be used for. It confuses everyone else, but it helps determine the design of the building.
But let us leave specialized language to those specialized places. We may actually understand one another better, which is usually a good thing. Although Gresham’s law may still rule in money matters, we can seek to repeal it in matters of words.
(Alex Marshall is the author of “The Surprising Design of Market Economies,” and a senior fellow at Regional Plan Association in New York City.)
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