Today I attended an annual Team Meeting for members of the Market Research department of the company for which I have the honour to work (BAA, the airport operator that inflicts Heathrow and Gatwick upon millions of innocent and inoffensive air passengers every year).
One of the most fascinating items on a sparkling agenda was a presentation by an Airport Character Manager (no, really) on developing “characters” for each of BAA’s airports in order to “market” them to the travelling public (a.k.a. “the punters”). Heathrow’s character is “hub of the universe”, Gatwick’s is “the bright choice” (as opposed to the “stupid choice”, presumably), Southampton’s is “small and personal” (i.e. “tiny and insignificant” as in “I bet you didn’t even know there is an airport at Southampton”). And BAA’s Scottish airports (Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen) are, well, “Scottish”.
The talk was riddled with the usual business gobbledygook, such as benchmarking, connectivity, service delivery, sustainability and integrated strategies, all of which were of course aspirational and impactful. The whole wretched idea was neatly, if inadvertently, rubbished by the hapless MD of Edinburgh Airport who, on a promotional video we were shown, tried to explain what airport character meant to him : “It’s very difficult to describe [waffle, waffle, waffle]…I can’t define it, but it’s very aspirational to all of us here at Edinburgh Airport.”
I’m tempted to offer a prize to the first person who can find the word monumentality on the BAA website, but on second thoughts, I wouldn’t want anyone to waste their valuable time. Just take my word for it, it really is there, in the last paragraph of an article written by a man with only half a head. ( You simply can’t resist looking now, can you?)
Whilst it’s amusing to hear highly intelligent people making idiots of themselves by talking drivel, it’s also depressing to realize how this rapidly-spreading linguistic virus is robbing perfectly decent words of any meaning.
And if Unspeak by Steven Poole is anything to go by, this development has its sinister side too. Poole defines Unspeak on the book jacket as “a mode of speech that persuades by stealth, E.g. climate change, war on terror, ethnic cleansing, road map.” Here’s the opening of the book’s Introduction:
A long time ago in China, a philosopher was asked the first thing he would do if he became ruler. The philosopher thought for a while, and then said: well, if something had to be put first, I would rectify the names for things. His companion was baffled: what did this have to do with good government? The philosopher lamented his companion’s foolishness, and explained. When the names for things are incorrect, speech does not sound reasonable; when speech does not sound reasonable, things are not done properly; when things are not done properly, the structure of society is harmed; when the structure of society is harmed, punishments do not fit the crimes; and when punishments do not fit the crimes, the people don’t know what to do. ‘The thing about the gentleman,’ he warned, ‘is that he is anything but casual where speech is concerned.’ The philosopher’s name was Confucius, and he was referring to a phenomenon that is all around us today. He was talking about Unspeak.
Let’s see how it works. What do the phrases ‘pro-choice’, ‘tax relief’, or ‘Friends of the Earth’ have in common? They are all names that also contain political arguments in a way that alternative names – say, ‘opposed to the criminalisation of abortion’, ‘tax reduction’, or ‘a group of environmental campaigners’ – do not…
Each of these terms, then – ‘pro-life’, ‘tax relief’, ‘Friends of the Earth’ – is a name for something, but not a neutral name. It is a name that smuggles in a political opinion. And this is done in a remarkably efficient way: a whole partisan argument is packed into a sound bite. These precision-engineered packages of language are launched by politicians and campaigners, and targeted at newspaper headlines and snazzy television graphics, where they land and dispense their payload of persuasion into the public consciousness.
You can read more here, if you can bear it.