Gilded promises

‘Corporate dissonance’ or ‘second-item syndrome’, anyone? David Bernstein presents some nifty terms as he explores the use of ‘linguistic added value’

My wife is adept at finding apt terms for human activities. When I spoke at a conference on corporate communication and bemoaned the gap between pronouncements in corporate ads and the behaviour of those companies, she suggested the term ‘corporate dissonance’.

She also found words for the phenomenon of being diverted from your purpose by a secondary thought, for example returning from a trip upstairs bringing an item other than the one that had instigated the journey. She called it ‘second-item syndrome’.

Last week, we were discussing the renaming of the bus pass. ‘Freedom Pass’, she said, ‘is what you might call “linguistic added value”.’ I offered the London Eye as another example. As we discussed it, I realised that much of my career has involved creating linguistic added value. Sometimes it is roses by other names. Occasionally, the new term points up the reality of the product promise, suggesting potential beyond the expected.

There was an example of the latter in World War II. After a couple of years of rationing, the purchase of other items – off-ration, but in short supply – was controlled. Tinned meats, fruit and fish, dried goods and delicacies were restricted. Each was allotted a numerical value. A monthly total was decreed for each person to spend, across the range or even on just one item.

This was rationing, but not as we had known it. In contradistinction to the rigid distribution of limited resources by the authorities, there was introduced a degree of choice. The ad team at the Ministry of Food was tasked with finding a term which would reflect that consumer-friendly innovation. They came up with ‘personal points’. A master stroke of linguistic added value.

The day after my wife invented the term, I was confronted in a local store by a display of containers, each with a slit in the top and a colourful design. They bore purposeful names such as ‘season-ticket fund’, ‘new handbag fund’, ‘silver saver’. The jolly tubes were money boxes transmuted by linguistic added value.

I was fascinated early by the magic of words, often seduced by the apparent grandeur of the more ornate. When writing a school essay, how could I be satisfied with the word ‘wrong’ when I could borrow the overblown ‘manifestly erroneous’ from some, now forgotten, source? A copywriter colleague many years later was dissatisfied with the adjective ‘full’ when describing a flavour. He opted for the grander-sounding ‘fulsome’, which he chose not to look up in a dictionary. More wasn’t just less, but meaningless.

Mind you, dictionaries don’t stand still. The good ones reflect change of usage. Fossilisation is for pedants. I recall being corrected by my college tutor for describing an atmosphere as ‘stultifying’. What did it mean? ‘Stifling’, I replied. ‘No’, he responded. ‘It comes from the Latin, stultus, a fool. Your word means “causing to appear foolish”.’ Contemporary dictionaries confirm this, but general usage has yet to adjust as a contemporary Roget’s Thesaurus witnesses, where the word rubs shoulders with ‘smother’, stifle’, ‘bottle up’.

Knowing Latin origins of words is a neat ploy. And if I don’t know I fall back on a line I heard on radio: ‘It comes from two Latin words, hippo, “I drink”; potamus, “a bucketful”.’ Now that’s what I call linguistic added value. Or ‘Lav’, as we say in Croydon.

Latest articles