Big Word of the Day: Autoethnographic

Letter A

In honour of Carrie Rubin’s post today about use of Big Words, may I present to you, my Big Word of the Day:


Self-reflective writing that explores the writer/researcher’s personal experience and connects this autobiographical story to wider cultural, political, and social meanings and understandings.

I readily confess, as I don’t believe it will betray me as an ignoramus, that today is the first time I have ever encountered this magnificent word. It has, I believe, rather more to do with research than writing, but I have fallen in love with it anyway.

So I just  had to share it.

When ‘Sorry’ just isn’t Enough

A sentence that begins with the words, ‘I’m sorry…’ isn’t always an apology.

flower-316437_1280My car, still under warranty and with less than 5,000 miles on the clock, developed what I now understand to be a known fault. The manufacturer (four letters, beginning with F… yes, that other word crossed my mind too) has, it’s entirely fair to say, not been in the least bit helpful.

The manufacturer’s customer service contact centre seems to have scant interest in providing actual customer service and their repertoire of customer care messaging is correspondingly sparse. As the debate over my vehicle developed over several phone calls and I patiently outlined my grievance again and again, I noticed that every response began, with the obstinacy of a stuck record, with the words: “I’m sorry that you feel this way…”

As a wordsmith and professional marketer, I’m alert to the scenario. You know, when what someone appears to say isn’t what they’re actually saying. That’s when words are intended not for clarity, but for misdirection.

It’s everywhere in sales and marketing messages. Take, for example, where savings or performance improvement statistics are presented with those little words, up to. See up to 50% improvement… get up to 85% off… that sort of thing. Then there are those unlimited contracts which, in the small print are actually limited by something called a ‘fair use policy’. And there’s the subtle difference between the words flavour and flavoured – did you know that one? If something is strawberry flavour, it will be packed with chemicals and not even the hint of a berry of any description. For real fruit content, it would have to be strawberry flavoured (as in, flavoured by an actual strawberry).

And then there’s… “I’m sorry that you feel this way…” It may sound like an apology, but it’s not.

“I’m sorry that you feel this way…” is a verbally vacuous, pointless, patronising platitude – nothing more.

“I’m sorry that you feel this way…” is the opposite of what I needed, which was an admission of responsibility and more importantly, ownership of the problem.

I hit a brick wall – no, not in my car thankfully, but with my efforts to get the manufacturer to own the problem. That was left to the dealer – and I’m very grateful they were prepared step-up where the manufacturer was not, delivering understanding, an acknowledgement of the underlying problem, a considered response and solutions instead of platitudes.

We have a way forward; it’s not ideal but I can live with it. It’s involved me in additional cost, which even I could see was unavoidable given the situation. But I’m a realist and it was the best way forward to liberate us both from a situation which the manufacturer – despite the internet being littered with tales of this model’s flawed mechanicals – seems unwilling to properly acknowledge.

Oh… but that reminds me of another word that doesn’t always mean quite what it should: Warranty

Corporate Doublethink

Since when did the definition of the word ‘unlimited’ change?

Endless roadUnlimited = limitless, infinite, boundless, indefinite, unrestricted…. so says just about any dictionary you care to reference.

Why then, do the Validation Certificates for my latest shiny new Ford Fiesta say “Unlimited mileage is to a maximum of 100,000 miles”?

Of course the missing word in this grammatically dubious sentence is… you guessed it, ‘limited’:  Unlimited mileage is… ahem… limited to a maximum of 100,000 miles.

I’m all for language evolving – new words being brought to life, outmoded grammar being laid to rest, but why the doublethink?  Either it’s unlimited, or it’s limited – n’est-ce pas?

In the bowels of corporate headquarters everywhere, there are people working on this repurposing of perfectly adequate language. Data contracts have adopted the same flexible interpretation of the word unlimited, coupling it with what they charmingly call a fair usage policy. That’s to say, ‘We’ll all pretend we’ve given you a totally unlimited download capacity, but you have to go careful now, don’t get too greedy, because you’ll try our patience and then we’ll cut you down just when you need us most’.

Another favourite of mine is that deceptive pairing of the words ‘up to’… as in, “Up to 80% off” (any and every high street furniture sale the length and breadth of the country), or “Up to 80Mbps” (my Broadband contract, which actually delivers about half this speed).  Cleverly deploying a size zero font, the corporate boffs imagine their customers are so stupid they won’t notice those microscopic letters.

When I’m not trying to be a novelist, I work freelance in marketing and copywriting.  So you might  imagine I’d be sympathetic to these attempts linguistic ambiguity.  But I’m not and that’s because I’m a consumer first and a Grumpy Old Woman second – and only then am I a marketer. And I don’t like the idea that the corporate world is out there reinventing language in an attempt to confuse and deceive.

If you have a favourite snippet of corporate doublethink, share it with us.

Cliches: Avoid them like … …

This writing business, it’s a roller coaster ride, up one minute, down the next. It’s been emotional and I’m struggling to come to terms with it. Some people think it’s as easy as pie and writers don’t have a care in the world. But you have to be tough as old boots and hard as nails to suffer the slings and arrows and weather the storm. You have to think outside the box, have nerves of steel, take the rough with the smooth and above all, don’t let it get you down.

You may get out of bed the wrong side and feel like a bear with a sore head some days, but you’ve got to keep on keeping on, because at the end of the day, it’s down to you. It is what it is and if there’s no pain, there’s no gain. Just don’t count your chickens before they hatch.

But keep your chin up. Every cloud has a silver lining and every dog has its day. What goes around comes around, and time heals all wounds. In the grand scheme of things you’ll live to fight another day.

Let them eat cake

cakeIt’s a whole new linguistic world out there on Tuesday evening telly.

I’m loving Great British Bake Off (I’m finally on-board after poo-poohing it for three series).  And I’m deeply into series two of Top Boy too.  For those of you not in the know, Great British Bake Off is, basically, a baking competition, executed in a sunny marquee bursting with pansy-scattered aprons and chocolate sprinkles. By significant contrast, Top Boy has been labelled The Wire for Brits.  I’m not sure I agree, but it’s very good – hard-core narrative, compelling characters, dark places and lots of gritty, visceral action.

So, without further ado, and not for the first time, I’ll confess to a split personality.

But my two favourite Tuesday night programmes have presented me with a mini linguistic conundrum. At 8 o’clock on Great British Bake Off dough is used to make bread.  But an hour down the schedule on Top Boy they’ve said a fierce farewell to the traditional ‘crooks and drugs’ slang for money – that would be, um…,  dough or bread.   Money is now apparently paper.  And as for drugs, well, that’s apparently food.  Which, if nothing else, brings us back to bread, I suppose.

But I can guess what you’re going to ask.  Where would that gritty ‘crooks and drugs’ film, Layer Cake, fit in with all this?

Classic comedy with a linguistic twist

I’m picky about punctuation and I adore audiobooks.  Today I was reminded of a comedy sketch which brilliantly and heroically blends these two things – Victor Borge on Phonetic Punctuation.  Comedy routines come and go, but some go on forever – especially now, thanks to YouTube.  Blissfully, it took me less than 30 seconds to locate this delightful piece (even though it’s been given an incorrect title).  You can enjoy it here.

It’s a struggle

I think it’s time for another linguistic grumble. I’m struggling to come to terms with…. the way this particular cliché sends me into orbit.  It’s lazy, unimaginative writing and it pops up all over newspapers and especially in news bulletins on the TV. On any given day, millions of people all over the world are struggling to come to terms with stuff.  Most of it is quite serious stuff – deaths, natural disasters, redundancies and other horrible crises and tragedies. They deserve better than to be bagged-and-tagged with this overblown and over-used phrase.

Agnostic? I don’t know

Since when has the word agnostic changed its meaning?

I write often for companies in the technology sector and you see this phrase everywhere these days: platform agnostic. It’s used to mean that it doesn’t matter which hardware or telephony platform you own, the solution in question will work with it. Go back a few years, and the accepted phrase was platform independent – used for software that is independent of any platform constraint, therefore can run on any platform.

Look up agnostic in the dictionary and you’ll see it means unknown or unknowable and  it relates specifically to the existence, or otherwise, of God. What  these misguided corporate marketers are actually saying, is we don’t know, not it doesn’t matter. And I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t make any sense to me at all.

So why reinvent the word agnostic to replace a perfectly acceptable term which everybody understood?

I found this article which describes the take-up of the term platform agnostic in recent years. It says what’s happened, but it doesn’t explain why. So I offer this as a thought; every marketer seeks to differentiate. Somewhere, a few years ago perhaps, in a shiny air-conditioned unit on a landscaped Silicon Valley campus, in a 6 foot square cubicle decorated with a thousand colourful giveaway gadgets, gismos and graphics designed to show what a quirky, creative individual the occupant is – a quirky, creative individual without a full grasp of the English language coined what he determined was a new and different way of describing an old and well established concept. His colleagues, none apparently in possession of an English dictionary, congratulated said quirky, creative individual on his quirky creation, and the phrase was launched on the techno-marketing universe.

And I don’t know, but somewhere, in a damp crypt in deepest rural England perhaps, an ancient scholar, a teacher of Latin, a lover of language, from the first or second century, turned silently in his grave.

The thing is…

….. is….. there is no second ‘is’. One ‘is’ is enough!

I’m a bit of a linguistic fusspot and there are one or two little clunkers that really get to me.  The thing is, is this is one of them…. the way people make a big thing out of the word ‘is’…. One ‘is’ really is enough! Unless, of course, we’re in the process of creating a new word….. thingis, as in: The thingis, is we’re mucking up our beautiful language, one little word at a time.

Now I’ve probably spoiled it for you. That little extra ‘is’ will be jumping out at you from every radio interview and TV vox-pop you encounter, from friends and family, colleagues and customers, maybe even from your own lips….

The thing is, it might just make a few people do away with that little surplus-to-requirements word.