Saying What You Mean

Business Casual
Susan Percy

When the eager young public relations person left a voicemail asking if there might be an opportunity for “editorial exposure,” she was not seeking an opportunity to flash the magazine’s offices. She was pushing for a story to be written about her client. Her assumption was that we would have a harder time turning down a request for “exposure” than a more blatant story “pitch.” (We didn’t.)

When other PR types contact us to ask if we are interested in a “bylined” article, that doesn’t indicate that they fail to notice that all our stories carry the bylines of the writers who have written them. “Bylined” is PR jargon for a clumsy attempt to disguise an ad as a story. The proposed “bylined” articles would be written by a client, about a client, solely to promote a client. (No thanks.)

Every profession or occupation has its jargon, of course – PR folks aren’t any worse than any other group: We just happen to hear from more of them than we do accountants or nuclear physicists or veterinarians. Some jargon is simply shorthand, used for convenience; some is calculated to obfuscate or mystify or confuse. Occasionally a particularly catchy phrase makes its way into general usage – law enforcement’s “perp walk,” for instance – presumably requiring the coining of a new phrase to replace the one that has become too familiar to too many outside the profession.

As a lifelong word person, I’m fascinated by what people say and what they don’t; by what they mean but don’t say – and, in general, by new words and phrases and new uses for old ones.

I have heard that manufacturers of home furnishings and wall coverings get together every year to determine what colors will show up on sofas and chairs and paint chips; they, presumably, decide when teal gives way to sage and mauve loses out to lilac. I have wondered whether there is some secret committee that makes similar word decisions, with power to make “disconnect” a noun rather than a verb, to anoint “meltdown” as the appropriate way to describe a complete collapse of a person or a system, and to insert “deconstruct” in places that it doesn’t really need to be. (If such a group exists, could I please apply for membership?)

Some perfectly good words become so closely associated with one particular context that they are, for all practical purposes, taken out of circulation. That seems to be the recent fate of “embedded.” Some endure long enough for their less-than-respectable origins to be forgotten: “trip” and “bummer,” relics of the psychedelic ’60s, come to mind. Other words entrench themselves so firmly that you can’t get rid of them, even though their very use in a sentence makes any normal person want to shout, “Get a thesaurus! Now.” I’m thinking here of “closure.” Even when people need it, they shouldn’t say so.

I’m also intrigued by expressions that come into vogue and become part of the language, showing up everywhere (“connecting the dots”) and those that make a brief appearance, then vanish (“jumping the shark”) and those that linger for a while, poised between longevity and oblivion (“drinking the Kool-Aid”).

My favorite expressions, though, are the ones that retain a strong local or regional flavor – a difficult feat in our ever-more-homogenous world. I especially love hearing Southernisms that remind me of the way some of my older relatives used to talk. One person who’s “fixin’ to” do something can make my day and another who’s “not studyin'” something else can make my week. Throw in a few dogs that won’t hunt and I’m grinning from ear to ear. (It goes without saying that these expressions have to spring naturally to speakers’ lips: no faux folksiness, please.)

Thanks to a year I spent on the West Coast, I even have an appreciation of California-speak: Once in the ladies’ room of a San Francisco restaurant, a woman who had emptied the entire contents of her makeup bag and spread it all over the sink saw that I was trying to chart a course toward the faucet to wash my hands. “I beg your pardon,” she said, sweeping bottles and tubes and jars aside. “Am I manipulating your space?”

No, I thought to myself, you’re just in my way. But I did wish her a nice day as I was leaving.

Categories: Business Casual