The worst business words of the year

| December 23, 2017

The Plain English Foundation has predictably voted alternative facts as the most egregious phrase of 2017 but there were plenty of offenders from the Australian business community.

On his first day in the job, President Donald Trump’s then press secretary exaggerated the size of the crowd attending the inauguration. Defending him, counsellor Kellyanne Conway said the secretary had merely given “alternative facts”.

“In a post-truth era, our politicians can apparently give alternative facts and be instinctively correct, regardless of reality,” said Dr Neil James, the Foundation’s Executive Director, “Yet a fact cannot have an alternative that is also a fact. This kind of language tries to minimise scrutiny and evade accountability.”

Each year, the Plain English Foundation gathers dozens of examples of the worst words and phrases used by politicians, businesses and the media to highlight the importance of clear language in the public realm.

“A particularly worrying trend of the year was the growth in ‘Frankenwords’: non-existent words that corporations make up to market themselves,” commented Dr James. “While the English language evolves, we should call corporations to account for inventing ugly non-words in their own interests.”

When a video of security staff dragging a bleeding passenger from his assigned seat went viral, for example, the USA’s United Airlines tried to downplay the “overbook situation” that led to an “involuntary de-boarding”. The CEO finally issued a lukewarm apology for having to “reaccommodate” passengers, igniting a firestorm on social media.

2017 was a sorry year for companies inventing ugly words to promote a product. Australian betting company Sportsbet came up with “Merry Puntmas” to publicise the horse racing season in October and November. Apart from bringing up Christmas way too soon, there’s something particularly inappropriate about turning a religious and family celebration into a gambling promotion.

To continue the gambling theme, the umbrella company for Australia’s lotteries added “joyments” to the list of corporate language offences against good taste. Joyments, they helpfully explain, are those everyday moments of pleasure, like “opening a brand new, even better, cat meme” or having “a scratchie in your pocket”. While nobody would question the happiness people find in captioned pictures of kittens, there is precious little delight in “joyments” as a word.

Fred Allen once described advertising agencies as ‘85% confusion and 15% commission’ and there was certainly a lack of clear thinking when GE set up an Australian bank and plumped for “the Betterers” as their marketing tagline: – These are the Betterers. Latitude Financial’s personal loan specialists. Need a better holiday, a better car, or a better whatever? Talk to the Betterers. Surely with a moment’s thought they could have come up with something better themselves.

Even in emergencies, when plain speaking should be at a premium, euphemisms raised their ugly head. When a propeller fell off a Regional Express aeroplane mid-flight, the pilot reported: “We’ve just had uncommanded engine operations and then our propeller has just sheared off.” Did air traffic control really need to know a lost propeller wasn’t a “commanded” action?

Other jargon proved even harder to decipher this year, not least regarding the vexed issue of electricity. When the government asked the Energy Security Board for detailed modelling of its National Energy Guarantee, for example, the board responded with a “an optimised non-linear trajectory” for reducing emissions.

Any idea what this actually means? We don’t know either, and that’s probably the point.