Chris van Schaick: zombie words of the English language

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(Getty Images/iStockphoto) - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

This month, Chris van Schaick leafs through the dictionary to find the zombie words of the English language

I spend my working week dealing with words and I’m quite sanguine about the English language. There will always be linguistic crimes committed. But on the whole I don’t think our language is going to custard – to use a phrase I picked up from my Sydney-dwelling sister-in-law.

I rather enjoy the evolution. It’s quite fun that a word that my mother (b. 1924) used to describe the colour of an envelope might be used by my daughter (b. 1993) to describe the muscle tone of a lifeguard on Bournemouth beach. Buff is the word, by the way.

Important words from my Mum’s era like ironmonger, alderman or suet wouldn’t mean much to my daughter. Vice versa download, falafel or crowdfunding. So words come and words go.

The words I feel sorry for are the ones that have had all the life squeezed out of them by over use. Yet they never actually die. They’re the zombie words destined to spend the foreseeable future plodding through adverts and news bulletins and business reports without any longer meaning very much.

Executive is one. I saw a kiosk the other day selling sweets, magazines and cigarettes. It was called an executive kiosk.

I checked, and executive is defined as relating to or having the power to put plans or actions into effect. You don’t usually need to draw up a five-year strategy and get sign-off from key stakeholders to suck on a Marlboro. But executive now gets roped in to describe everything from hotel rooms to cars to menus to shirts.

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The coach companies may be to blame. I first noticed the word executive being badly overused when transport firms started to put the words executive travel along the sides of their 70 seaters. When I see a coach load of homecoming football supporters at the weekend, the windows are sometimes misted up and I imagine a cheery fug of beer fumes and banter inside. My assumption is that few, if any, of the people on board are Finance Directors of a FTSE 250 company. But the legend on the bus still says executive travel.

And what about passionate? Everybody’s passionate about everything now and the word has lost any meaning. I yield to no man in my admiration of the Plumbing Industry Registration Board. But I couldn’t help noticing a story on their website: Passionate About Plumbing.

Likewise, homemade. It’s plastered over so many menus. But what does it actually mean? In whose home was the pie baked? In fact the words often now have the opposite effect on me to the one intended. If it’s a shabby looking pub or a particularly sticky-feeling greasy spoon, I find myself hoping that the pie in question was manufactured on a sterile, fluorescently-lit, temperature-controlled production line in Stevenage, rather than really being homemade.

I think it was the writer and tv man Clive James who said that in a cliché, the words are not misused, they’ve just gone dead. That, for me, is exactly what happened to executive, passionate, home-made and many more.



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