Words Should Mean Something
By Sam Schwartz
Words should mean things. Let me explain.
Take mission statements, those corporate-slime covered, oh-so-saccharine sentences that find their way onto business cards and the weird brochures that companies have to advertise themselves. While there are a few mission statements that have managed to evade this coating of syrupy hogwash, most are nothing more than vision board paper-mâché.
Apple is a prime example of this sort of okay-ness.
According to The Balance, Apple’s mission statement is “Apple designs Macs, the best personal computers in the world, along with OS X, iLife, iWork and professional software. Apple leads the digital music revolution with its iPods and iTunes online store. Apple has reinvented the mobile phone with its revolutionary iPhone and App Store, and is defining the future of mobile media and computing devices with iPad”. This mission statement is full of self-congratulatory back-patting, but is ultimately fine. It says what it needs to and nothing more, all the while using, proper, plain, parseable English.
Now take Starbucks, the coffee conglomerate and the reason you wake up in the morning, even if you don’t have a reason to wake up in the morning. Their mission statement reads:
“Our mission: to inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time” [The Balance]. This sounds good, and at first glance, it is good. The grammar is coherent, the words are big and impressive, and the whole thing’s just sappy enough. But think about it; actually think about it. What the h*ck does it mean? How does one “inspire and nurture the human spirit” via coffee? How does one “inspire and nurture the human spirit” in the first place? It doesn’t make any sense.
And these sorts of things are being employed not to inform, but to impress: to baffle a reader for just long enough to get their eyes to glaze over and to convince them that, whatever it is, is absolutely vital.
Suppose a family was planning a road trip and wanted to create a mission statement. Why did they want to create a mission statement? This is a thought experiment — don’t worry about it. Let’s just say that they wrote: “We aim for this trip to be fun and to relieve some family stress.” This is a perfectly good, logical sentence. Now imagine that it was fed through the “corporate upspeak machine.” “The communal aim for this excursion is one of the reutilization of time for more enjoyable pursuits, as well as the relief and resolution of ongoing tensions that do not aid the global or local and familial community.” That second sentence means literally the same thing as the first one, but it has been pureed into a letter-smoothie.
Let me be clear. Before I go on, this is not an indictment of large words. They are tools that are good and useful to the English language when used meaningfully and accurately. What I oppose are marshmallow words, words that are light and airy and fluffy, but contain absolutely no nutritional value. Words like “empower,” “inspire,” “community,” and my biggest pet peeve: “synergy.”
And when these words show up in sentences, they can do more than just glaze them with a thin veneer of gobbledygook. They can obliterate any semblance of meaning altogether. The Starbucks mission statement has been completely marshmallowified, a shockingly frequent practice. Sentences commonly take horrid forms like: “the ulterior ambition and repurposed energy of local communities and citizens will be harnessed and maintained to create thriving networks of entrepreneurs, seeking to elevate and re-evaluate modern life.” That sounds fine. And if you read them quickly, you can’t tell that they make no sense. But what do they mean? I don’t know.
“But why does any of this matter?”
It matters because history has been filled with thinkers and ideas, not for the sake of giving French beret wearing hipsters something to talk about over the new authentic mocha, chai-tea infusion, latte, free-trade wine, but for the sake of better understanding our world. Words should be used to better capture a complex and confounding place and to better comprehend ourselves — not just on a “what’s the point of life?” level, but also on a “why doesn’t that guy like me level?” and on a “why am I embarrassed by what stupid thing I just did?” level. And, the thing is, at some point, you’re probably going to want to express it, or explore it, or explain it, and if our world has been sapped of meaning, “it” is most likely as far as you’re going to get. When words are used so carelessly and pointlessly, they degrade language. They discredit thought and ideas. Oftentimes, instead of well-thought out scholarly, important works, we see pontificated, circumbendibus, vaingloriously lionized esoterica. This gobbledygook isn’t just a disservice to meaning and an insult to one’s ability to wonder, but a remonstration of everyone else’s.
Let words mean something, because if you don’t:
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