Synecdoche, synecdoche…we all fall down

Written by
George Smith
Added
July 15, 2013
‘At the end of the day, we can’t move the goalposts – we’ll just have to buy into a central management resource’ loses nothing as a sentence, merely adding 11 meaningless words to the original 10.

Why do people use one word when 10 will do?

I was at a meeting last week when an otherwise-intelligent bloke said that he needed to buy into a central management resource

I’ll run that phrase by you again in a minute or two, so don’t worry. But let me report in the meantime that this was a divisional head who felt he was (I’m going to have to say it) under-resourced. In other words he had lots of work to do and didn’t have enough staff. And so it was that he needed to buy into a central management resource.

Ever eager to acquire new variants on the English language, I pressed him further. What, in the name of arse, was he talking about? He gibbered things about data entry, significant overload and surplus resources in the marketing department. Only when I had him pinned to the floor with a Stanley knife at his jugular did he feel able to unburden himself with short words. It turns out that his Emma is overwhelmed while Tracey in marketing has visibly got nothing to do. Hence the gibberish. ‘Could Tracey help out with some typing?’ seems a reasonable translation.

It could have been worse. At least he didn’t say ‘paradigm’ or ‘synergy’ or salience’, three words that crept into management language like thieves in the night somewhere around 1990. And he didn’t meld the bullshit with one of today’s no-brain clichés such as ‘moving the goalposts’ or ‘at the end of the day’. He could have done with ease, ‘At the end of the day, we can’t move the goalposts – we’ll just have to buy into a central management resource’ loses nothing as a sentence, merely adding 11 meaningless words to the original 10.

One of the first bottlings of 1997 management-speak began to surface in British marketing circles about the turn of 1996.

The last paragraph contains one of the first bottlings of 1997 management-speak. I refer, of course, to the expression ‘no-brain’ – more often expressed as the noun ‘no-brainer’. I first heard it in California (where else?) a couple of years back and it began to surface in British marketing circles about the turn of this last year [Ed: 1996].

What I like about it is what I like about many examples of management-speak – it can be used for totally different meanings. Thus, a no-brainer is either a decision so obvious that it brooks no debate or something that is simply stupid. That last Spielberg movie was a no-brainer but so was the director’s intention to have large dinosaurs in it. This won’t do at all – language can only afford modest elasticity if it is to offer clarity. And even instant clichés deserve universal understanding. Pompous or what?

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As Bullshit Man he walks taller, swirling his daft vocabulary around like Darth Vader’s cloak.

There I mischievously go again, though purely in the interest of demonstrating how very easy it is to gum words together and giving them the whiff of the zeitgeist. Which brings me back to my intelligent divisional head who wanted Tracey’s help. If he had expressed himself in such demotic terms he would have seemed a whingeing office empire-builder. But as Bullshit Man he walks taller, swirling his daft vocabulary around like Darth Vader’s cloak. We all quail when we hear such utterances and few of us would dare say, ‘What exactly is a paradigm?’ out loud.

Copywriting has become a quaint old habit akin to blacksmithing. The client now wants ‘creative input’, a far more diffuse and expensive commodity.

As I’ve regularly pointed out over the years, the main purpose of management-speak is to sell familiar things for more money. This is how copywriting became a quaint old habit akin to blacksmithing. The client now wants ‘creative input’, a far more diffuse and expensive commodity. Anyone concerned with ‘identifying and addressing issues’ must be a superior life form to anyone actually doing things. And anyone who can skilfully attach the word ‘strategic’ to his humble function will be creaming it.

If I were a carpenter, I wouldn’t be buggering around with chisels. I’d be a strategic carpenter, willing to help you identify wood issues and addressing them as part of an over-all strategy for timbered infrastructure.

Fundraisers have latterly had to subscribe to this new language lest they be thought a primitive sub-species. Charities talk of ‘brand ownership’ and ‘giving retentives’ and being ‘donor-focused’, but these are all borrowed terms, derivative from mainstream marketing. We are now bounden to contribute our own dedicated vocabulary. Can I kick it off for the New Year with the word ‘synecdoche’? It means, ‘A figure by which a more comprehensive term is used for a less comprehensive or vice versa; as whole for part or part for whole.’ Which is about as useless as a word can get.

Not that that should stop us. It has a ring to it. And it will take a brave fundraiser to blow the whistle on it. Make this the Year of the Synecdoche. You have nothing to lose but your brains. A real no-brainer if ever there was.


This article is abridged from Up Smith Creek (The White Lion Press http://www.whitelionpress.com) a collection of 79 incomparable and irreverent essays from the pen of George Smith, over 30 years of fine writing.

About the author: George Smith

George Smith

A legendary marketing/fundraising guru and curmudgeon.

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