‘Adglish’ is not a very clever title for this post, is it? No. It’s stupid. ‘Advertising’ and ‘English’ are not words that were ever meant to be fused together. This segways me nicely to my point:
I’m not especially privy to the realm of marketing, but I can confidently comment that it has started to smell like a privy. The stench is that of linguistic rot and ruin and it’s emanating from a few choice print ads hanging above our heads on the highway and glowing down at us on the train. They are mutant words that are given life by advertisers, who are nothing if not creative, they’re just creating freakish Frankenstein words that scare me. Orwell had it wrong. Newspeak did not propagate by via the will of a dominant power complex. It comes from our own profit-motivated dum dumness and also the internet (I’ll get to that later).
For some reason I couldn’t find an image of the print ad, but here’s an equally annoying TV ad, that even seeks to define its mutant word.
There you have it folks. ‘Vastpacity’ was the dumbest fake word I’ve ever heard. Until I saw ‘Drinkcessorize’.
Sorry, I guess I didn’t give it the proper accents. It goes like DRINKCESSORIZE. Man McD’s just got hip. You can remix up all your own styles with 48+ beverage choices. Not only can you drink sugary crap, you can brand yourself with it, make it a part of your urban regalia. You can let people know what kind of cat you are, with a soft drink! It’s clear that these ads really cover the vastpacitous realm of humanity. Are you a strawberry lemonade kind of metrosexual chic freak? Or maybe a Sprite-toting Rastafarian Urban Outfitters employee?
I’m so loving it.
Not to be outdone in this anti-grammatical arms-race, the world’s second largest fast food chain, Subway rolled out its own word of mass destruction last month by informing us that October is no longer named October. It is now called…
I think the idea was that you can have any of their footlong subs for $5, which, in my mind is holding them at the absolute maximum of what I’m willing to pay for any one of them.
Okay, enough sarcasm. What does this foolishness mean for us? You have my word, dear readers, that nothing on this blog will ever be put up for the sake of unfeeling parody (except maybe that post about “Soul Sister”), but instead for a bit of cultural speculation and a hopefully well-formed opinion or two.
Language never stays the same. The English language in particular (which is the one I’m most familiar with), has never enjoyed any period of stasis. Change is constant, but that does not mean all change is good. Changes in language happen for certain reasons, and identifying what those reasons are may give us a little insight into which changes to embrace and which to bemoan.
I don’t think the above atrocities necessarily represent a real change in language. They were invented words to serve a purpose: advertise a product, and they will probably go away when it’s time to roll out the next campaign. Probably. Unfortunately the logic behind creating these fake words may prove to be a bit more pervasive than just a bad pun.
These words, Vastpacity, Anytober, and (shudder) Drinkcessorize are really, mini brands. They are labels pasted over a product and they are engineered to be unique. Look closely and you’ll see little trademark logos floating inconspicuously after the last letter. The difference between these brands and other banners is that they suck. They suck majorly. Anytober? That’s the worst copy I’ve ever heard. That’s copy worthy of the severest Don Draper “What?”. So how did these grotesque syllabic stitch-works get past the better judgment of intelligent marketers? It’s not because they’re dumb. These folks traffic in language. No, it’s because these words are unique. Think about when you pass an ad like this. The word, probably due to its monumental stupidity, sticks in your head. Vastpacity meant nothing to me when I first read it. The fact that it was a coarse combination of the words ‘vast’ and ‘capacity’ held none of my mental attention. Vastpacity did not communicate anything to me about the Chevy Traverse’s trunk space. Instead, it put a bug in my mind which, were I so inclined, would provide me with a memorable keyword to enter into a search engine. If I put in ‘car’ ‘trunk space’ ‘SUV’, a million choices would pop up of which the Traverse is only one. But with ‘Vastpacity’, I have a sure-fire way of finding that particular product.
That’s what I think this is all about: the internet. The internet has turned the historically/culturally constructed combinations of words that make up our language into a mishmash of trillions of combinations of keywords that link to different bits of information. Words are links in the internet age. The correct combination, entered into the search bar will take you to the correct destination. Words like Drinkcessorize represent a new tendency in the printed word to bend to this new use of language. It is a misconception of what words are and a degradation of its potential to simply treat them as links to information.
What is a word? It is a name. One might think of a word as a signpost that merely points a seeker toward a represented thing. That’s what a link is. If you click on a hyperlinked word it will take you to another page, probably a page that has something to do with that word. That’s where the dynamic ends for word-links. A word ‘means’ something like a signpost pointing to a destination. I say ‘apple’, it suggests to you a round red fruit that can be safely consumed.
But there is more going on in words than just pointers to information. Isn’t it true that there is something round and red about the word itself, ‘apple’? Can’t you hear the waxy skin popping against your teeth as you roll out the ‘P’ sound between your lips? ‘Apple’ doesn’t just point to a round red fruit, it sounds like it. There’s a third thing in play here. The sound, the thing and something else. Something unseen but definitely there. A symbol. Is it surprising when, after repeating a word a number of times over and over again, it starts to lose its grip on the meaning of the thing it suggests. Doesn’t it just become a useless, arbitrary phoneme? That’s the word being emptied of meaning. When you say it over and over again it’s a slow detachment of the phoneme from the thing it suggests and the illusion of the symbol deteriorates.
Of course ‘Apple’ wouldn’t have to suggest a fruit if it had been used differently. The magic of words is their arbitrariness. The sound ‘Apple’ could mean a big brown fuzzy animal that lives in the woods and eats berries, salmon and hunters if we had wanted it to. Perhaps the sound ‘apple’ would, in a parallel world, call up another image in our minds, but it does not. A good way to test this is to look at (supposedly) onomatopoeic words in other languages. In America, dogs say ‘bow-wow’, but in Germany, they say ‘wau-wau’. Still too similar? A rooster says ‘kikeriki’. Words are arbitrary, but that does not make them any less rich in symbolic weight. ‘Kikeriki’ to a German sounds more like a rooster than ‘Cock-a-doodle-doo’. Neither is correct, but they are both valid symbols.
Symbolic meanings tickle us, warm us, slap us and push us. Words don’t just have the potential to convey information, they help us feel things. The phonemes are arbitrary, but the meanings are not. Symbols are the result of years of deeply embedded meanings. Tolkien theorized that historical and mythological things or events actually informed the sounds we use to represent things. The fact that words for death have a common root (murder, mortuary, etc.) suggests a thing, a shadow, some happening or being to set it off. So, in his reconstruction of Anglo Saxon mythology (now known as The Lord of the Rings) he named the dark land inhabited by the evil lord Sauron, Mordor. In the same way, Galadriel sounds light and beautiful and Bilbo sounds both stodgy and whimsical at the same time. Words do more than just link us to a wikipedia definition.
What I hate about Vastpacity is not that it may change how we speak words, it’s that it may change why we speak words. If words start to sprout up as a result of a simple drive for uniqueness, to stand out amid the trillions of bits of grammatical information, then I fear our words may become less real to us. They will suggest only the imagined digital space of the internet and not the real world around us. If we continue to populate our language with words that have no story behind them, then there may come a day when our language will be too emptied out of meaning to create stories. They may still be able to chart events and recount happenings, but they will have no flavor. Woods will not be misty, roads will not crunch gravelly underfoot, and birds will not twitter, except in 140 characters or less.