Many people act as if they really believe the first line to St. John’s gospel, “In the beginning was the word.” They think by using a word or phrase they can create or deform the reality being described or make people look at it from a different perspective.
For example, when corporations started using the term “downsizing” to describe massive layoffs of employees, the idea was to conceal the human misery that layoffs cause by shifting the focus from the people to the ephemeral entity that is a corporation. With this newly created compound noun, they sought to replace the message, “2,000 people are losing their jobs” with the more positive message, “The company is getting smaller (and stronger).”
Of course, most people saw through the ruse, so in time another new phrase entered the lexicon of terms to describe massive firings: right-sizing. People quickly saw through that one, too.
(A quick note: companies sometimes do have to terminate the employment of many people when changed market conditions or foolish moves by management threaten the continued operation of the business. What I’m talking about here is the language they use, and not the actions they take.)
Examples of these euphemisms are everywhere: “pre-owned” to describe a used vehicle; “police action” to describe a war; “special methods of questioning” and “refined interrogation techniques” to describe torture.
Sometimes, the replacement term is a piece of jargon that sounds weird until it is repeated endless times, such as the use of the word “product” to describe something intangible like insurance, software or a professional service.
So far, most of the examples I’ve given are simple euphemisms: synonyms that pretty up the situation or concept. Sometimes, though, the new term is meant to manipulate or completely distort, usually for an ulterior motive. My favorite example of all time is the Reagan Administration’s attempt to consider as a vegetable that goopy combination of tomato paste and corn syrup we know as ketchup. Reagan’s folks wanted to define ketchup as a vegetable and not what it is, a condiment, so that they could cut the budget for the school lunch program and still say that the children were getting a balanced, healthy meal, ignoring the low nutritional value of ketchup compared to fresh or canned tomatoes, green beans, carrots, kale or other real vegetables (not to mention that to constitute one serving of vegetable, someone would have to choke down a half-cup of ketchup).
Other times, the new label is an out-and-out lie, as when earlier this year Tea Party elder mis-statesman and former Congressman Dick Armey said that the founders of Jamestown, all capitalists to their core, were socialists. Armey turned these early American entrepreneurs into socialists rather than admit that a capitalist venture could ever fail and to hammer home his false message that any and every economic failure must stem from socialistic actions.
As a writer and a student of language and society, I find these new words and phrases to be quite fascinating, especially when they spread lies or manipulate the public. That’s why I decided to bestow an award each year on the weirdest, funniest and/or most manipulative new or newly reported label, word or phrase used by an organization or individual to distort or recreate reality.
It’s called the Ketchup Award, after the Reagan Administration’s favorite vegetable, and I’m asking my readers to send me nominations by December 31. I’ve mentioned the awards twice on OpEdge, so consider this blog entry the final call for submissions.
If you would like to nominate a new or newly reported distortion for the first annual Ketchup Awards, just post it in a comment on one of my blog entries, send your nominations to the OpEdge FaceBook page or email email@example.com. Please include the phrase and the person or organization who said it in your nomination. No need to include any links, but keep in mind that my staff and I will have to verify the word or phrase, who said it and that it was actually said in 2010, and a link will make it much easier for us to do so.
In a special blog entry on or around January 15, 2011, I will list at least 10 finalists and make three awards: 3rd Place gets One Dollop; 2nd Place Two Dollops; and the grand prize winner will get The Full Squeeze.
There will be no prize for the submitter of the winning entries, except for the recognition you will receive on OpEdge and the warm feeling you’ll get inside knowing that you have helped to unmask a charlatan.
Thanks in advance for your nominations.