On “Branding” and Other Buzzwords

by Scott London

In his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell observed that just as thought can corrupt language, so language can corrupt thought. “A bad usage can be spread by tradition and imitation,” he said, “even among people who should and do know better.”

Academic prose is the most obvious example. Many scholarly books are full of not only bad habits, but sentences — and sometimes entire paragraphs — that are completely unintelligible. Here are a couple of specimens I ran across recently:

“One should not draw the conclusion that ‘new nations’ may not be created or become viable, but rather, that the process by which this occurs is fraught with inappropriate borrowings from extraneous experiences. Legitimation of such new arrangements may be produced at the end of a gun barrel, but more significant is how pivotal elites play the major role in advancing or retarding the process.”  (Donald Warren, “Displaced Majority Politics”)

“There is no easy path between cold cognition of an overdetermined structural analysis and the hot cognition of misplaced concreteness.” (William Gamson, Talking Politics)

But even ordinary speech has become increasingly contaminated by meaningless language. If Orwell were alive today, I’m sure he would be fretting about the way many buzzwords and catchphrases are bandied around today that try, as he put it, “to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

I’m thinking of verbs like “score-carding,” “leveraging,” “monetizing,” and “benchmarking,” for example. Media producers like to talk about “reconfiguring” and “repurposing” their “content.” Business leaders now make the case for “right-sizing the corporation” and making “internal staff-balancing changes.” There is no end to examples of this kind.

Australian writer Don Watson has a name for them: “weasel words.”

What is perhaps especially worrisome to me is how marketing language has come to infect ordinary speech. Everywhere you look, people have started using stock phrases like “pitching an idea,” “enhancing visibility,” and “making concepts stick” that come straight out of the advertising world.

This tendency is also reflected in the virtual obsession with “branding.” Now even individuals seem to think they need to brand themselves, whatever that means.

Take, for example, a book by Brenda Bence with the remarkable title: How You Are Like Shampoo. The book’s subtitle exemplifies the kind language that has become increasingly common, and apparently acceptable to many of us: “The Breakthrough Personal Branding System Based on Proven Big-Brand Marketing Methods to Help You Earn More, Do More, and Be More at Work.”

A recent variant of personal branding is the idea of 15-second marketing and the so-called “elevator pitch.” Authors, speakers, consultants, bloggers and other independent professionals are advised to spend time crafting a short spiel or pitch that sums up their “unique selling proposition.”

See, for example, Steve Pavlina’s 15 Second Marketing and ProBlogger’s Write an Elevator Pitch for Your Blog

It’s a tantalizing idea, and perhaps a fun parlor game, especially for hyphenated professionals who are cook-musicians, say, or artist-realtors. How do you sum up your professional identity in ten words or less, especially at a time when more and more people are working independently (or not working at all) and trying to stake out a niche online?

The trouble, of course, is that it doesn’t work very well. We’re human, after all, and no slogan or catchphrase can sum up what we do very well. And why should it? In order that we might stand out in a crowd? In order to be memorable?

Yes, some say that’s the key to success. But let’s face it, it’s also a kind of vanity. We’re so busy objectifying and packaging ourselves that we forget what it is we do, why we love it and how it nurtures us — and perhaps especially, how we can be useful to people and help them be more of what they want to be.

I like the organic approach advocated by people like Merlin Mann and John Gruber. In a talk at the recent SxSW conference with the deliberately buzzword-riddled title 149 Surprising Ways to Turbocharge Your Blog With Credibility! they make the case for doing what you do well enough, and with enough passion, that it sells itself. Then you don’t have to.

I love the English language, but I don’t think we need to reform or preserve it in all its purity. It’s not about purging everyday speech of jargon and contemptible words. Rather, it’s about being mindful of all the subtle ways our own thinking is polluted by meaningless vocabularies.

As Orwell said, one can’t change the language but at least one can change one’s own habits. “And from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase — some jackboot, Achilles’ heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno or other lump of verbal refuse — into the dustbin where it belongs.”