When did railway stations become train stations? When did ‘free’ become ‘for free’?
Why have people started answering the question “How are you?” with “Yeah”?
When did “I said” become “I’m like”?
Funny business, language change. It’s supposed to be caused by a more powerful culture from elsewhere. That’ll be the US, of course – although Australia is blamed for Upspeak, whose users say everything as if it’s a question. Not sure about the more powerful culture bit there.
Wherever a new usage comes from it seems to be a bottom-up rather than a top-down process. It’s insidious rather than imposed. It sneaks in and spreads its influence until, before you know it, everybody’s saying it.
So does that mean you can’t deliberately influence the way people speak? Well, what about this lot: “Just like that!”, “Lovely Jubbly”, “Am I bovvered?”, “Boom boom!”? Yes, the comic’s catchphrase.
But can it happen in a commercial sense?
Aeons ago I worked at an advertising agency which was in the process of inventing the strapline ‘Asda Price’. The phrase was accompanied by a hand tapping a bottom. This was meant to draw attention to the money saved, safe in the back pocket. How many people actually carried their money in their back pockets wasn’t an issue. We were more interested in the power of the close-up of the jeans-clad bottom (and yes, it was always the female version).
Imagine the shock, after a while, to see real, normal, human beings showing their appreciation of a bargain of any sort by tapping their bottoms and mouthing “Asda Price”, usually accompanied by a wink. They might have been talking about buying a bike, a second-hand car or a Rembrandt, but the story would be illustrated by the bottom-pat, the wink and the magic words.
In 1992 Saatchi & Saatchi produced a knocking poster for the Tories warning of Labour’s ‘Double Whammy’ – higher taxes and higher prices. It seemed an alien phrase. Had anybody in Britain ever used it? Was it part of the national vocabulary? In fact it was a misuse of an American expression, something to do with giving the evil eye in double measure. Saatchi’s poster ignored that and went for something more childishly basic: two big boxing gloves with the words printed on them. Not very promising, I thought. Yet today anybody talking about being hit in quick succession by two misfortunes will trot out the words “double whammy” as if they’d been rubber-stamped by Shakespeare.
Now, if you don’t wash you’ll pong a bit. And it will have been pretty noticeable in the days before our shower-deodorant-clean-clothes-every-day lifestyle. But how could you refer to that condition in polite society?
The makers of Lifebuoy soap came up with the answer. They invented B.O. The vaguely scientific abbreviation for Body Odour was delivered in a dramatic whisper to the hapless non-Lifebuoy user. Before long, kids everywhere would be stage-whispering the damning indictment to anyone they wanted to pick on. It lasted for years as a killer put-down, maybe still does.
At some point in the late afternoon any chap’s cheeks and chin will start getting a bit bristly. After all, it’ll be about ten hours since he had a shave. Nothing to get neurotic about, you’d think. But then came the dread concept of ‘Five O’clock Shadow’. Aaaarrrghh! Social disaster. Only one way to head it off – use the right razor blade in the morning. The Gem Micromatic Blades company introduced the phrase in a 1930s advertising campaign. Result? Fear of something you never even knew existed, and an addition to the language which now seems as if it’s always been there.
So it can be done. It is possible to introduce something which identifies your brand into public consciousness through everyday language. The difference now is that, with so many more communication channels and viral possibilities, a multi-million pound budget isn’t essential. Maybe, with a clever bit of wordplay and manipulation, your message could be on everyone’s lips. Why? Because you’re worth it.
3 thoughts on “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Excellent web site and good article about words. Words used by the advertising industry may be just as inelegant as Upspeak, but they also serve a purpose, as you point out, and as the Carbolic Smoke Ball Company also discovered.
Great website John. Loved your blog.
I was like “wow” when I read this!