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Ian Haysom: Let’s not forget the beauty of good words

There’s an office in Victoria where the staff, unbeknownst to the “suits,” play a fun game during long meetings. It’s called Buzzword Bingo.

There’s an office in Victoria where the staff, unbeknownst to the “suits,” play a fun game during long meetings. It’s called Buzzword Bingo.

Each time a manager speaks in a meeting, the staffers, seemingly taking conscientious notes, are in fact filling in their scores after predicting which well-worn corporate-speak clichés will be used.

The buzzwords? If you’re working in an office anywhere in 2013, you’ll know them well.

There’s thinking outside the box, when the rubber hits the road, going forward, on the same page, low-hanging fruit, an “ask,” on the radar, value-added, drill down, go offline, paradigm shift and (one of my favourites) a win-win.

While athletes are condemned for giving it 110 per cent, or suggesting it’s déja-vu all over again, the corporate world actually creates and commits more bad, sad cliché abominations than any other part of modern society.

It’s actually a badge of honour, talking like a pin-striped dunderhead. Last year, Forbes, the business magazine, suggested — somewhat tongue-in-cheek — that using business-speak will quickly get you promoted all the way to middle management, even if you have no idea what you’re talking about.

It suggested ambitious ladder-climbers use these: Let’s circle back to that. Let’s put that in the parking lot. Let’s touch base on that later. Let’s blue-sky this.

Or: That’s the $64,000 question. I have an open-door policy. At the end of the day. We’ve got to do a little more due diligence here. Let’s take the 30,000-foot view.

OK, I admit shamefully to having used one or two of the expressions myself. I used low-hanging fruit last week. I use win-win too much.

I love language, I adore words, I luxuriate in writers who can make sentences dance and do triple-back-somersaults, writers who can break the rules of grammar and split a huge infinitive because they like to boldly go into an exciting literary minefield.

It’s wordtacula.

I broke two rules there: a two-word sentence and a word I just made up. Not a memorable five-dollar new word, true, more a buddy-can-you-spare-a-dime word, but all mine. I think. Unless I stole it.

I love wordsmiths who can make you laugh or cry or think. I love that T.S. Eliot can write: “To become a great writer, whatever you do — avoid piles.”

Or that Steven Wright can ask, “What’s another word for thesaurus?”

Last week, I found myself re-reading this sentence by the writer Ian McEwan: “There was a loud crashing music in his head, a great orchestral tinnitus.” A clever use of the word tinnitus, smart and evocative.

In this age of cliché-ridden business-speak, of quick monochrome tweets rather than Technicolor paragraphs, where poetry is considered self-absorbed and irrelevant, where words are losing their power and beauty and ideas are reduced to a sound bite, it would be easy to yearn for the good old days.

You know, like Shakespeare’s time.

That’s way too precious. And frankly, there’s a lot to be said for high-speed, to-the-point communication rather than too much flowery verbiage.

Sometimes you just have to get on with it.

But let’s not, in our collective haste, lost in all this noise, forget the beauty of the word.

Spoken. Written. Sung.

Let’s not drown in a sea of sad clichés and predictable ideas. Let’s not get too lazy. Don’t let the suits teach us how to speak. Or think.

Some years ago, the writer Robert Beard put together a list of his favourite English words, the loveliest in the language.

Words such as demure, effervescent, eloquence, gossamer, halcyon, labyrinthine, lagoon, lissome, opulent, panoply, plethora, quintessential, ripple, scintilla, sumptuous and surreptitious.

Not many of those words will be in use in the offices of Victoria, or anywhere in North America, I’d vouch. Perhaps the suits should learn to think outside the cliché box when they speak at the next meeting. A real win-win for everyone. Except for the staffers playing Buzzword Bingo, I guess.

I’ll leave you with one bittersweet, beautiful word. A simple farewell, a goodbye. A so-long-it’s-been-good-to-know-you word. A word imbued with meaning and mystery. My word for today.