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How do words get into the dictionary?

Usage and abusage, defriending and impacting…

“It’s a bit of a what?” said my friend to me. 

“Schlep,” I repeated. And repeating myself and explaining the word gave me a chance to say it over and over.

There’s something about schlep I find hugely appealing. It’s the sort of word you can roll around in your mouth and really sink your teeth into.

And because it’s not much used in the UK, it often provokes a quizzical eyebrow. It comes from German via Yiddish, and I picked it up when I lived in South Africa, where it’s in common use.

As a verb with an object, it means to carry something heavy (I schlepped my shopping to the car). Objectless or as a noun, it refers to a difficult journey (It’s a schlep to get to Gatwick – which is what I said to my friend).

The very next day, I had an IM ping-pong with a client about whether impact could be used as a verb – which is what I’d done in some copy.

Now I’m the first to admit that I’m a Grammar Nazi, but sooner or later, you have to accept that a usage has become the norm and you’re better off not fighting it anymore. So I don’t. But my client is keeping up the struggle just a bit longer, so in the end we plumped for affect.

Schlep and impact were very much on my mind as I recently watched a talk by Anne Curzan, who’s professor of English at the University of Michigan.

She’s a language historian who’s been on the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel for over a decade, and host of a radio show called That’s What They Say.

Curzan talks about the people behind dictionaries, and the never‑ending tussle between definition and usage. 

If you’ve ever perused a document, you might be surprised to learn the primary definition of the word. And if you’ve never been hangry or called somebody adorkable, you’ll add two more words to your vocabulary.

And maybe you’ll think twice the next time you use decimate.

What makes a word “real”? is entertaining and enlightening, with some unexpected discoveries. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

[If you’re reading this in an email, click here to see the talk on TED.com]

The art of marketing and the marketing of art

Why perception is reality. Really.

[Image courtesy of Esther Westerveld at Flickr Creative Commons]

A couple of weeks before Christmas, I got into a spirited debate about art with fellow members of my book club.

We’d strayed from a discussion of A Man Called Ove (recommended, by the way) to talk about the Abstract Expressionism exhibition at the Royal Academy (I’d recommend it but it’s now finished).

“It was so strange,” said N. “When we stood in front of that Mark Rothko, I didn’t feel anything. But my friend S felt an immediate connection. She said there was a sort of energy coming off it, and it left her moved.”

Which left me moved too – but by disbelief.

Perhaps I’m just too set in my ways, and too conventional, but blank canvases and undifferentiated blocks of colour just leave me scratching my head.

What’s it all supposed to mean? How do you even begin to understand what it is when it doesn’t look like anything? Where’s the skill and mastery in just dripping paint on canvas (Jackson Pollock) or creating rectangles with blurred edges (Rothko)?

I should have kept my thoughts to myself. Having sown the wind of doubt, I reaped the whirlwind of indignation and before I knew it, the Christmas spirit had evaporated.

But we’re a civilised bunch, and it was all very polite. And when H said she was going to catch the show before it closed, I wondered if I should accompany her to confront my prejudices and feel the love.

A couple of weeks later, we headed to Burlington House in Piccadilly to get down and dirty with the Abstract Expressionists.

So what did I learn from my gallery visit? And what can marketers learn from artists?

Plenty, as it turns out – here are my top three takeaways.

1. Storytelling is everything

“It reminds me of music that you can just about hear,” said the young chap to his girlfriend, as they stared at a muddy painting. “The melody is barely discernible above the hum, but it’s there. Those lines in the painting are like faint notes that rise and fall.”

For a moment, I thought she was going to laugh. But no. She was deadly serious as she turned to him and said admiringly, “You know, you’re so right. That’s exactly what it is.”

I moved on, and continued eavesdropping.

And without fail, in front of every work of art, people were talking in similar vein to their gallery companions. Telling each other stories, embroidering detail and building up a picture that they both felt comfortable with.

It was incredible to listen to. Through story after story, I realised they were connecting with the paintings. Most of these stories were inspired by what they already knew of the works, from the catalogue, audio guide and accompanying captions.

So somebody else had framed it for them, but they were doing the rest. 

2. Positioning matters

“What makes that a great work of art?” I said to H. “In fact, what makes it a work of art at all?”

It was a large canvas entirely covered in black paint. I was tempted to say “a five-year-old could have done that”, but thought better of it. I knew that would be a red rag to H.

So instead, I took an oblique swipe.

Would this painting be as good if we unhooked it from the wall of the RA and went outside to Piccadilly and hung it on the exterior wall? Or stuck it on the railings next to the brightly coloured works of the Sunday artists on Bayswater Road?

“That’s not the point,” she said. “It’s here. It’s art. That’s all.”

I held my tongue, and tuned into a conversation between a little French boy and his parents.

“I don’t understand it,” he said frustratedly. His mother looked down at him and smiled.

“There’s nothing to understand,” she said. “Either you like it or you don’t.”

Personally, I was with the kid.

3. Scarcity works

Rothko, de Kooning, Pollock, Gorky. What do they all have in common – apart from being Abstract Expressionists?

They’re no longer with us, which means that there’s a finite supply of their works of art on the market. And that means only one thing: soaring prices.

If you caught the fascinating BBC documentary on auction house Christie’s a couple of months ago, you’ll have marvelled, as I did, at the phenomenal prices that are now paid for art.

And it’s all down to artists’ reputation and popularity (which ties back to storytelling, of course) and the number of works on the market. Good old supply and demand. And when reclusive collectors snap up rare works never to be seen again in public again, the price goes even higher.

When they put them back on the market years later, as one eccentric Chelsea collector did in the programme, they make a killing.

Art attack

So was my visit to the gallery a success? Yes, but a qualified one.

There were some works of art I really liked, much to my surprise. I have to admit I’m still struggling to think a Rothko is as good as a Rembrandt, or a Pollock as good as a Pontormo. But as the French mother might have said to her little darling, il n’y a que les imbéciles qui ne changent pas d’avis – only fools don’t change their minds.

And if I learned nothing else, I found out that storytelling, positioning and scarcity work. But then I knew that already.

And so did you. So get to it.

Find out more:

Business buzzwords: the good, the bad and the ugly

How far should you go to avoid a cliché?

[Image courtesy of Tom Newby at Flickr Creative Commons]

“Can’t we use another term instead of best practices?” said a client of mine recently. “Everybody uses it, and I feel like it’s become devalued. What does it actually mean anyway?”

And when you think about it, he’s right: everybody does use best practices all the time. So maybe it was time for change. And guess who was first in the queue to find an alternative?

“You’re the writer,” he said. “What do you suggest?”

So I went into thesaurus mode. Standards? Sounds too much like they’re imposed by a third party, or written down in a list. And they they seem less good than best. Industry-leading approaches? That sounded clunky, and replaced one buzzword with another. Latest ideas? Sounds too theoretical, as if the ideas haven’t been tested, as practices have.

The more I looked for an alternative, the more difficult it became.

I roped in my client, to see if he could help in the search – after all, he was the one who wanted to throw out the buzzword baby. But had the bathwater gone the same way? It was increasingly beginning to look so.

He drew a blank too, so I decided to go back to basics. How are best practices defined?

A procedure or set of procedures that is preferred or considered standard within an organization, industry, said Dictionary.com.

I started to get that sinking feeling. 

The search for original copy

The thing is, these buzzwords have become popular because they’re short, snappy and memorable. They’re instantly recognisable, and everybody knows what they mean – because everybody uses them. They’re common currency in the world of work, so they’re a quick way to get your message across.

But does that mean you need to avoid them? Perhaps.

But then you’re faced with an even bigger problem than using a cliché – finding an alternative that’s as short, snappy and memorable.

And that’s a big ask. (See what I mean?)

I’m as guilty as anybody else. Probably more, in fact. Because sales and marketing copywriting is chock-full of these buzzwords.

Synergy, solutions, leverage, thinking outside the box, doing more with less, cutting edge, state of the art. End-to-end, top-down/bottom-up and the ever-popular one-stop shop.

These handy little buzzwords are the very nuts and bolts that hold much sales and marketing copy together. Pull them out, and the whole machine falls apart. You’re left with limp prose and woolly words, lacking the bite of the buzzword.

To be or not B2B

It’s worth stating at this point that we’re talking here mostly about B2B. Because when businesses talk to each other, they adopt this buzzword lingo. If you’re talking to real people, it’s best to talk like a real person.

Does that mean you can’t do the same if you’re talking to businesses? After all, it’s one person in that business who’s reading the copy, and surely they like to think they’re a real person too?

It’s a simple question, but the answer is slightly more complicated.

Yes, they’re a real person, but they’re representing an organisation. They’re used to corporate-speak, which is liberally sprinkled with buzzwords, so ironically, if they don’t see them in your copy, they may think you sound less serious or even amateurish.

And if your competitors are throwing buzzwords around with gay abandon, you may not measure up favourably. So the informal, buzzword-free approach is best kept for B2C.

So how did I end up resolving my cliché crisis? Well I helicoptered out, got 360-degree visibility, and decided that the status quo was the way to go.

Because sometimes, best practices are just that. Best.

Should you ever swear in your marketing?

If everybody else is doing it, why shouldn’t you?

[Image courtesy of Melissa Wiese at Flickr Creative Commons]

 “I don’t know why people get so worried about what others think of them,” said a friend last week, when we were talking about a mutual acquaintance. “Personally, I’m past caring.”

Good for you, I thought. Because most of us aren’t.

We’re all just a teensy bit afraid of being judged by others, and being found wanting. Not clever, or funny, or intelligent, or cultured, or polite enough. Or whatever. So most of the time, we mind our p’s and q’s and play it safe.

Most of the time. And most people. But not everyone, and not always.

My friend, who claims to be past caring, still doesn’t extend his nonchalance to swearing. Why? Well it’s not a matter of what people would think of him. The truth is much simpler: he’s just not a sweary person.

Because there are sweary people. We all know one – or knew one, if their potty mouth has caused us to avoid their company.

Swearing doesn’t have to be vulgar, and used cleverly, it can actually be quite funny. And a non-sweary person can achieve even greater effect by dipping into the arsenal (stop it) of bad language and pulling out a weapon every now and then. The fact that it’s unexpected makes it even more striking. 

So much for the personal sphere. But what about swearing in marketing? And branding?

The simple answer is that it depends, as in real life, on who you are and who you’re talking to. If you’re a big, serious, heavyweight brand you’re never going to swear or even come close. It’s simply not in keeping with your image. If you’re a B2B brand, it’s always better to err on the side of caution. Nobody was ever offended by not swearing, so it’s best to play it safe.

No, swearing – or even moderately risqué language – is best confined to B2C brands. And then, only those who feel comfortable with it and are ready to accept the consequences.

Just like in real life.

Get over it, dude

There’s no mistaking the message that Fat Bastard or Sassy Bitch are sending out. What’s surprising is that both are a brand of wine, traditionally not a product associated with colourful language. But by shaking things up, and saying up front who they are and what they stand for, they immediately identify with their target market. 

Which is a clever move.

It’s probably also what Holy Crap cereal is trying to do, though I don’t think I’ll be chowing down on that any time soon. On the other hand, Bigg Ass Fans kind of appeal to me, and sound like they might really keep me cool in a long hot summer.

If you’re like me, you’ve probably already reacted to these brands (currently available in the US, but inevitably heading everywhere else) based on their names. Either you’re their sort of customer or you’re not. 

And here’s the thing: they know that, and don’t want you if you’re not.

Like me, like my lingo

Which is almost exactly what Doug Kessler over at Velocity said to me a few months back.

He’d written a brilliant piece on the subject entitled How to use swear words in your f***ing marketing (except he didn’t use asterisks), which tickled me in all the right places, and went down a storm with his readership (“Funniest and most entertaining blog I can remember reading, EVER!”). 

The thing is, Doug is the first to admit he’s a sweary guy. It’s part of his shtick, and is inseparable from who he is. And when it comes to clients, it separates the men from the boys, the women from the girls, and the clients he wants from the ones he doesn’t. 

It works for him, and he feels comfortable with it.

(As an interesting aside, during our conversation lasting almost an hour, he didn’t swear once. Perhaps that was just because I opened  by mentioning the blog post, and the element of surprise, and spontaneity, had disappeared.)

I’m not sure the same approach would work for me, though. Strict parents, Catholic school and a natural aversion seem to stop me letting rip (most of the time – just don’t make me angry, as Bill Bixby used to say.)

And you know that? That suits me just fine.

I’m not offended in the least by other people swearing, and am even amused – or was, as the joke rapidly wore thin and became tiresome – by FCUK. (Yes, yes, we all know what it means. And yes, it’s clever. But if you’re going to swear, at least be honest and come right out with it.)

So should you swear? Or use risqué language? Or push the envelope just a little bit? It’s really up to you, your company voice and your target market. 

A good rule of thumb is never to say in writing what you wouldn’t say to somebody’s face: to an existing client, or a prospect, who’s standing there looking you straight in the eyes.

If that very thought makes you feel uncomfortable, then swearing’s not for you.

Find out more

Commonly confused words: the sequel

Little mistakes, big consequences. And how to avoid them…

[Image courtesy of Ricardo Carreon at Flickr Creative Commons]

Just the other day, somebody said to me, ‘What exactly are you inferring?’ when I suggested that he might not be taking the best decision.

It stopped me dead in my tracks.

Why? Because I wasn’t inferring anything – he was. I was implying, but to explain the difference would have been to add insult to injury. So I bit my tongue, adopted my best diplomatic tone and smoothed ruffled feathers.

Every so often, it pays to get back to basics, and look at the little things that matter. In this case grammar, vocabulary and spelling, which can send out signals about other things. We all like to think that we can see beyond a simple mistake, and that it doesn’t really matter in this day and age.

What’s more, we’ve been told so often over the last few decades that we shouldn’t make value judgements about the way people speak or write that we think the same goes for us and our business.

But just because you cut other people slack when they make mistakes doesn’t mean that they’ll return the favour.

And if somebody picks up on a clanger you’ve committed in print or on the web, it might just go viral if it’s funny or embarrassing enough, so you’re receiving attention for all the wrong reasons. Or worse, a potential client might just think that sloppy writing means sloppy service.

Way back in 2008, I wrote two posts about easily confused words. Years on, the confusion continues, with not just those words by many others. So I thought I’d return to the topic, and disentangle a few other common ones.

  1. complementary / complimentary
    These two words are easy to mix up, as they’re very similar, and actually have a common Latin origin (don’t worry – we’re not going to go there). But it’s important to get them right.

    Complement is to do with making something complete. So we talk about a ship’s complement (the full number of sailors) or say that white wine is the perfect complement to fish.

    The adjective complementary follows through on that sense, as you see in complementary medicine – alternative therapies that work with and extend traditional medicine.

    Compliment, on other hand, is to do with praise (we receive many compliments from our clients). Complimentary means flattering or full of praise, or – and this is where lots of confusion occurs – free/given as a gesture (a complimentary weekend for two).

  2. lie / lay
    There’s no easy way around this one, so if in doubt, check it out. The confusion arises because there are three linked, but separate, verbs: lie, lie (no, that’s not a mistake) and lay. And the past tense simply piles confusion on top of confusion, so let’s take a step back.

    Lie (1) means not to tell the truth. So I lie today, and I lied yesterday (a hypothetical example, you understand, as I’m the most truthful person you could ever hope to meet).

    Lie (2) means to be in a horizontal position. So I lie on the bed and go to sleep every night. But last night, I lay on the bed, because that’s the past tense. Still with me? Don’t worry, just one more to come.

    Lay means to set something down. So you can lay down the rules, or lay the table. If you did that yesterday, you laid down the rules, or laid the table.

  3. forego / forgo
    I recently read a story about a CEO who was intending to forego his bonus, as the company results were so dismal. What struck me, though, was not the magnanimity of the gesture so much as the mistake in the headline.

    The verb forego simply means to go before or to precede. You hardly ever see it used in this form, though. Far more common are foregoing (the foregoing conditions apply to all suppliers) and foregone (as in foregone conclusion).

    Forgo means to do without something – which is what our chief exec was doing, when he decided not to take the money and run. Since forego is rarely if every used, this is an easy one to get right: in almost all cases, it’s forgo.

  4. hone/ home
    This one is very common, though it’s easily avoided. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen people talking about honing in on things, from USPs to key messages, from target markets to customer needs.

    In its literal sense, hone means to sharpen something – usually a knife. By extension, you can sharpen your skills or even your body.

    When you’re zeroing in on something, you need to use home, usually followed by in and on. Whenever I have a moment of doubt (they do happen) I think of  a homing pigeon flying straight back to to its coop. It’s homing in on that point. By definition, honing must mean something else. A simple but effective way to remember.

  5. podium / lectern
    And finally, here’s one for your inner pedant. It’s also controversial, as (a) American usage differs from British and (b) usage is fluid, even on this side of the Pond – but here goes anyway.

    podium is something you stand on, not at. If you cast your mind back to your Latin and Greek (just kidding) you’ll know that its root comes from foot (but seriously: think pedal, pedestrian, podiatrist etc.). So it’s a stage or a platform.

    lectern, on the other hand, is a tall narrow stand on which you put your notes/speech for a presentation. Again, the root is Latin, and comes from the verb to read. But as I said, this one is changing. Still, it’ll impress your friends at dinner parties.

Misuse of these or any other words doesn’t constitute a cardinal sin in the world of marketing. People will know what you mean, even if you don’t say what you mean. But they may just, at some subliminal level, think a little bit less of you for making the mistake.

And the very last thing you want them to do is infer bad service from bad writing.

Just think of the implications.