Saturday, April 3, 2010

Why Words Matter

I remarked in an earlier entry in this blog -- or maybe it's just something I whine about so continuously I've lost track -- that modern copywriting has been reduced to a bunch of people standing around a designer's computer screen complaining, "Why are there so many words? Do there have to be so many words? Nobody reads."

Well, if no one reads any more, it's precisely because of that disregard for the importance of the written word in communicating everything from traffic signage to online diaper discounts. In fact, the lack of usable real estate -- the frame within the screen -- available in online communication means that each word the copywriter has selected has been chosen for its precision of meaning in the context of the other words. 

That's why it's nice to still encounter words that strobe with vibrant meaning. You plough into their substantial forms and savor the distinct flavors of their definitions, and before you realize it they've deposited their unique history and cultural evolution right in your lap.
Sure, there are words that, removed from their era, lose all relevancy. You only have to read an Edith Wharton novel to know that a brougham was a sort of horse-drawn carriage often used as a cab in the Manhattan of the late 19th century. Sources describe it as a four-wheeled, boxlike, closed carriage for two or four persons, having a driver's perch outside. To me that describes a stage coach as well, but I never heard anyone on Gunsmoke shout "The brougham's been held up!" 

But there are some lovely, incredibly colorful and descriptive words that apply when simply nothing else will do. They need to be revived like ailing dowagers and sent back out onto the dance floor.  

Popinjay: There's no better way to describe that attention-seeking slacker in your office, since it means a person given to vain, pretentious displays of importance and empty chatter. As in, "That popinjay Bob in Marketing took credit for our entire presentation."

Manque: My good friend Jean loves this word, and rightly so, as it means a sort of failed or inauthentic version of something real. As in, "Heidi is a creative director manque; she's never been remotely creative or managed to direct anything."

Martinet: There's a brittle, puppet-like quality to this word, which is perfect, since it describes unreasonable rigidness: someone who stubbornly adheres to methods or rules despite circumstances that may indicate a different course of action. As in, "That little martinet in HR insists I take Excel training in order to get my promotion."

Scuttlebutt: This wonderful word has archaic roots that are nautical in origin. While originally it had something to do with bailing water out of a ship's hold, it's somehow come to mean gossip...which seems an odd coincidence, since it's often used to convey office water cooler talk. As in, "What's the scuttlebutt on Security suddenly cleaning out Claudia's office?"

Bully pulpit: In a way a blog is a bully pulpit, because it provides a voice for someone in a context that isn't hugely impacted by others. Usually it's applied to politicians who take advantage of their position in office to force their agenda, but I tend to think of it as anyone who uses a position or ranking to steer discourse. As in, "Just because he's CMO, William doesn't have to use the annual meeting as a bully pulpit on how we should all switch to Priuses."

Scaramouche: If you're like me and sing Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody at top volume in the car, then you've at least encountered this word. Basically, it refers to a lazy, posturing coward or theatrical buffoon. As in, "That scaramouche Johnson made a complete ass of himself at the All Hands meeting today."

It hasn't escaped my notice that I've applied all these words as workplace pejoratives. Maybe I'm still thinking about all those people constantly crowded around the computer, plugging at my carefully chosen words like ducks in a shooting gallery.

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