Rachael on the go

Quick writing tips and ideas, but some musings too

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New world, lost words

Where the heck did we leave all those words that our grandparents used to know?

This blog is full of encouragement for taking a new (less structured) approach to writing. I advocate language that acknowledges migration, technology, community and change, so long as it upholds the golden goose: good communication.

But what is the fallout from stepping into a ‘new world’ of English? I guess vocabulary would be the biggest loser. Yes, we are inventing new words all the time (and at an increasingly faster rate). But more words are disappearing from use, without us even noticing.

These words haven’t fallen off the edge of the earth: we still have them in the dictionary. But fewer people can spell them, pronounce them, define them or use them in a sentence.

When was the last time that you dropped ‘piscivorous’, ‘dipsomaniacal’ or ‘uxorious’ into a conversation? I admit, I had to look up two of these words.

But we are not only discarding our traditional vocab. We are tampering with it too.

We are happy to use words that do not have the exact meaning we intend, because we don’t know we’re wrong. We usually make this error with words that sound vaguely alike, or are somewhat connected to the same topic.

Below are some words that I’ve seen used in the wrong sense (the left words in the pairs). Based on the context, I’ve guessed what the writer really means (the words on the right). Do you know the proper meaning of each word in these pairs?

misanthrope, misogynist

perspicacious, perspicuous

specious, spurious

verbose, voluble

loquacious, garrulous

naysayer, iconoclast

taciturn, laconic

circumspect, retrospect

Unless you have a solid (and quite formal) English vocabulary, this test is tricky. You may be confident about some of the words, but unsure about others. I’ve popped all the definitions below, to help you.

But, first, think about the length and breadth of your vocabulary. You’re definitely taking on dinky new words (probably short and tech based). Are they taking up mental space that used to store words of more than one or two syllables? And does it matter? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

The definitions

misanthrope (someone who hates or mistrusts humanity), misogynist (someone who hates or mistrusts women)

perspicacious (able to easily understand, of good insight), perspicuous (clearly expressed, easily understood)

specious (seemingly plausible but actually wrong), spurious (false or fake)

verbose (using more words than needed), voluble (talking fluently and readily)

loquacious (talkative), garrulous (excessively talkative, particularly about trivial matters)

naysayer (a person is expresses themselves pessimistically or negatively), iconoclast (a person who attacks beliefs, institutions, traditions etc. for being wrong or superstitious)

taciturn (reserved in speech, uncommunicative), laconic (in the style of using few words, spare in expression)

circumspect (wary, unwilling to take a risk), retrospect (in light of the past)


When being innovative is actually old hat

I recently read that the term ‘innovation’ is now passé. Everyone has been using it for long enough for the word to have lost its meaningfulness, or its descriptive power—that is, you would actually be perceived as quite uninventive, perhaps even dull or try-hard, to describe yourself (or something else) as innovative. In my reading about this word overuse problem, a commentator noted they now use ‘courage’ in place of ‘innovation’. And I imagine plenty of businesses are trying to come up with similar descriptors of themselves and their product/service, now ‘innovative’ has followed ‘cutting edge’ and ‘modern’ to the sad pile of overused language.

The trick is to find a replacement term that somewhat conveys the original idea yet takes on the priorities, concerns and ambience of the ‘now’, even of the possible future. A user of ‘courage’ is suggesting their operating environment or marketplace requires a brave stance, perhaps the ‘courage of conviction’. The word certainly implies there are hurdles to be overcome, battles to be fought. In that sense, it is an agenda setting word. And it is also a visionary word. An organisation that calls itself courageous is saying ‘we see challenges and we want to take them on’.

So, from relying on the habitual words that we all use without much thought, you can power up your vocabulary to say so much more about you and your organisation. Can you think of another way of saying ‘blue sky thinking’ (which replaced the awful ‘thinking outside the box’), ‘results driven’, outcomes oriented’, ‘customer centric’, ‘quality focused’, ‘transparency’ and ‘forward thinking’?

The key is to choose words that stand out because they are not commonly used in your writing context. But you also have to be sure your new words are relevant to that context: don’t be fancy just for the sake of it (no ‘soothfast’ for ‘truthful’). And don’t borrow too much terminology from other forums. Even if you love sport, for example, I’m not sure the world is ready for you to start talking about ‘game changers’, ‘play makers’ and ‘red cards’. But ‘certainty’, ‘clear thinking’, ‘questioning’, ‘frank discussions’, ‘adventurous’, ‘controlled’ and ‘exploring‘ may be great words for reaching out to readers.

I also like to move away from descriptive nouns and adjectives, and think about verbs instead (which I think are our best tool for connecting to readers). So, try to explain an idea as an action, with expressions such as:
‘To tackle this problem, we are working on x and y.’
‘The evaluation will compare how we market our product with how customers actually use our product.’
‘Our team understands you require x and y, and we will use ABC to show how well we provide those services.’

I wish you good luck in updating your business speak. Just remember to test words on a ‘courageous’ person before you launch them on the world.

Postscript: see the Word Spy website (in my Out and about links) for new words entering our language. I love some and hate others, but they may inspire you!