The business of being Shakespeare

On one of my recent Google trawls I came upon this description of lawn weeds: Flowering weeds can appear attractive to the untrained eye, but they are an eyesore to someone who is striving to maintain a healthy lawn with curb appeal.

Put the curb [or better still, kerb] appeal bit to one side, substitute flowery words and writing style for flowering weeds and lawn respectively, and the sentence above could be an introduction to this article.

Now, I know what you’re going to say: Shakespeare was a prolific coiner of words and is considered one of the greatest exponents of the English language. Nor would I disagree. It is estimated that he introduced more than 1,700 new words to the vast enrichment of our vocabulary, eyesore being one of them. (Be careful what you end up defending, though. However much Sarah Palin may will it otherwise, pun intended, refudiate is simply wrong!) Today, nearly 400 years since his death, the business world has arguably become our Shakespeare. But where Shakespeare’s eloquence illuminates and delights, much of the self-important verbiage of business simply makes us cringe.

Let me give you an example: updation. It appeared one day in a work email to my partner, informing him of a recent update to a meeting item. Perhaps, I thought, English was not the writer’s first language. Perhaps this was, in fact, an impressive display of a non-native English speaker applying the rules of English grammar as he understood them? If so his educated guess, though incorrect, was to be admired.

Unfortunately, it was not. It was simply a made-up word.

But why? Our expansive vocabulary already permits various ways of saying the same thing; indeed, it’s thanks to one of them (update) that we’re able to make sense of this contrived offshoot. Nor can it be that update is somehow less explanatory or precise, if only because its substitute, being entirely made up, has no generally recognised meaning.

Unfortunately, I suspect, the reason for its unwarranted appearance has more to do with a misguided sense of style; that style, if you will forgive me, being in F.L. Lucas’ words ‘the natural pompousness of the official mind'(1).

Similar inventions, used to replace entirely appropriate and existent word forms just because they are ordinary, include terms like impactful, ongoing, multi-perspectivity, moisturisation and deplane. I have no doubt that the Campaign for Plain English can provide others. Then there is the equally gratuitous related practice of hijacking the meaning of existing words. Think impacted, visioning and sea-change, the latter another of Shakespeare’s creations (from The Tempest).

Lest you think that I’m simply against neologisms, let me offer you meh. I’m too old to use it convincingly myself – the bored disinterest that young people do so well. But how aptly meh does this, capturing the attitude precisely, succinctly and in a way that no other word does. Hence, I understand its recently granted status as a word. But, if I were to paraphrase George Orwell: It is often easier to make up words … than to think up the English words that will cover one’s meaning (2), you might understand why I am resigned to waking up one day to find that updation too has become a real word.

(1) F.L. Lucas (1955) Style: The Art of Writing Well, Cassell & Co. Ltd.
(2) George Orwell, Politics and the English Language, 1946