Phrase Leadership (™)

Early last year, in a meeting with a new client who I knew had a propensity to write slightly more than they needed to, I took an unusual step.

To highlight their love of new and unusual word combinations, I suggested that this headlong pursuit of what I decided to title ‘Phrase Leadership™’ was sometimes getting in the way of what needed to be said. I suggested that they should consider simpler, plainer English. (And yes, it was meant as a twist on thought leadership. I added the ™ for a joke).

It made an interesting discussion point, they sort of took my point. Sort of. We moved on. But I’ve been thinking about ‘phrase leadership’ and collecting examples ever since.

Whilst I coined the phrase to make a point, I’ve realised that ‘phrase leadership’ is a serious game that is being played every day by a wide and varied group of journalists, brand consultants, trend forecasters and copywriters. Often it’s a kind of Darwinian race to create the perfect phrase to sum up a situation, create a new word to add to an already groaning dictionary of English words, or carve out distinctive territory in a market stuffed with defaults and generics.

The Arab Spring, for example, has swiftly become shorthand for any type of uprising in any Arab country. It was first used to describe Egyptian, Syrian and Lebanese unrest in 2005 as an echo of the 'Prague Spring' - even 6 years later The Times were still using it to describe ‘the great awakening, 2011’s equivalent of the fall of communism in 1989…’

Before that the equally popular term seemed to be The Color Revolutions – a handy title for Eastern European uprisings which let each particular revolution adopt their own shade of protest.

It’s become clear that ‘phrase leadership’ is hardly a new phenomenon. For decades journalists have been throwing 2 or 3 word combinations at us then waiting to see which ones will stick. The Fab Four? The Winter of Discontent? Chick Lit? It’s hard to know exactly when or where these phrases started – when did the BBC become The Beeb, for example? They just arrive, they hover, waiting for approval, then sink or swim. Sometimes intentionally, often inadvertently, they claim that much vaunted leadership and all pretenders have to bow to the winner.

In the past year alone I’ve read about toffologues - used to describe soap operas involving some kind of aristocracy. This week I realised I was the last person in the universe who didn’t know what FOMO* meant. Last week I learned that an old classic, Nimby (as in ‘not in my backyard’) has been updated to Numby to take in to account the fracking phenomena. That’s not under my backyard, in case you’re wondering.

And of course 2012 was the year that a word invented for TV satire (Omnishambles, written by Tony Roche in 2009 for UK show the Thick of It) was co-opted for real life political point-scoring by the leader of the opposition, Ed Miliband, looking to score points during a particularly tricky period for the Conservative party.

It then received a second boost after Mitt Romney’s disastrous visit to the UK in July, where he managed to offend just about everyone (prompting the hashtag #romneyshambles). Little wonder that Omnishambles was officially dubbed ‘word of the year’ for 2012 **, apparently beating off Mobot and Mummy porn in the process.

It’s not just journalism that loves ‘phrase leadership’. The fashion industry is addicted to new ways to describe a season’s look. You may not have realised that Flatforms (a kind of brothel creeper) have been big recently, Meggings (male leggings) are the new top tip and that Fashionista has morphed into Dalstonista (as in vintage-wearing East London types of a certain age). And there’s the invention of flawsome for brands that are not quite right but still great, if you see what I mean.

Sometimes words aren’t technically new, they’re just dragged out of semi-retirement. Conservative party Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell caused a storm by allegedly choosing a particularly boarding-school-style-PPE contraction of a latin term to describe a policeman as a pleb, and hence plebgate followed. The Guardian last year examined the extensive vocabulary of Leveson barrister Robert Jay who, apparently, sprinkles his speech with the likes of propinquity, deleterious and nugatory. (Blimey – don’t get trapped in a Scrabble game with him).

I write about this area slightly self-consciously, of course, knowing that brand consultants are constantly off creating their own unique phrases to differentiate their approach to the mysterious black box of the design process. Just a quick ask around revealed classics such as Brand Clarity™ and the Six Dimensions of Innovation™, all followed by the obligatory ™ sign. I think I’ve read about Brand Worlds and Visual Planning recently too. Not sure if they’re ™’d or not.

‘Adding the ™ suggest there’s something of value worth protecting, but on closer inspection it’s usually not the case’ suggested writer Nick Asbury, when quizzed about this. Asbury also pointed out that there’s an almost sinister side to some of this, in the way that government departments become Ministries for Defence, not Departments of War.

This type of disinformation takes us back to the master, George Orwell - the man whose fictional language for 1984, Newspeak, included thoughtcrime, doublespeak and of course Big Brother. Many of his examples were promptly absorbed into everyday political language.

What Orwell would have made of the mountain of doublespeak we’re all surrounded by now isn’t clear, but given that he was appalled by the state of everyday English 60 years ago, the chances are he’d be apoplectic. He'd probably agree with Rick Poynor, when quizzed on this phenomenon: 'the problem with anything endlessly repeated as useful shorthand is that the more we encounter the ready-made formulation, the less it encourages us to think’.

So, what became of my attempt to ridicule verbal thought leadership with my lovable but wordy client? Within an hour it had completely backfired. One by one they began to use the ‘joke’ phrase as their own. They’d already assimilated ‘phrase leadership’, then played it back to me as a useful two word summary of what they were trying to attain.

Oh no. What have I done?

By Michael Johnson


*FOMO – fear of missing out

** ‘Not only have you got a fucking bent husband and a fucking daughter that gets taken to school in a fucking sedan chair, you're also fucking mental. Jesus Christ, see you, you're a fucking omnishambles, that's what you are. You're like that coffee machine, you know: from bean to cup, you fuck up’. — Malcolm Tucker (Capaldi) to Nicola Murray (Front), Series 3, Episode 1, The Thick of It.


Thanks to the many people who contributed thoughts and suggestions to this piece, including Nick Asbury, Michael Bierut, Rick Poynor, Mike Reed and Howard Fletcher.

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