On Saturday night, I was at a party. (Yes, I do get out sometimes; it’s not all tracksuit bottoms in front of Grand Designs, you know.) Anyway, at said party, I was speaking to a guy about the Davis Cup finals – yay, Team GB! – and he said that it was great that it was going ahead in Ghent “pacifically to stand up against the terrorists”.
Mrs Malaprop, I presume?
That’s what’s known as a malapropism. What he meant, of course, was “specifically”. Well, I say “of course”, but it is actually just about possible in this case that “pacifically” would fit, because it means doing something in a peaceful and non-aggressive way. But trust me, he didn’t mean that. I know that because it was the second time he said “pacifically” during our conversation, and he definitely didn’t mean it the first time either!
So anyway, I jokingly corrected him (he didn’t mind – we were having a laugh) and told him it was a malapropism. “A what?” He then accused me of being “such a copywriter” because I then had to explain what a malapropism was.
Touché. I possible deserved that. I am more of a pedant than most when it comes to language. As a copywriter, it goes with the territory. But actually, there was still probably a little hint there that I was a showoff and using a big word when I didn’t need to.
Don't shoot the massager
The thing is, though, I’m not and I wasn’t. I used exactly the right word in exactly the right context. It’s certainly shorter than saying “that’s the unintentional misuse of a word by confusion with one of similar sound, especially when creating a ridiculous effect.” (Thanks, Collins Dictionary.)
Copywriters trying to make things sound complicated is the polar opposite of what they’re meant to do. On the contrary, during my work for a number of multinationals, I have taken reams of technical copy and made them easy for the layperson (or at least, the target audience) to understand. I’ve often found that a good approach is to write “so that your granny can understand it.”
When I’m not out partying but staying in, I do watch Grand Designs – that I grant you. The other evening, this segued into one of those traffic cop TV shows – the ones where they film them apprehending some desperados on the M25 for driving without insurance. I don’t mean to sound pacifically anti-police now (sorry, specifically anti-police), but it is actually far more often the case that these sorts of people try to throw their weight around by using overblown language in order to either impress and/or intimidate.
“Sir, I need you to produce the documentation pertaining to the licencing of this vehicle.”
Er, really? In any other world (at least an English-speaking one), that simply translates as,
“Can I see your driving licence, please?”
“We pursued the suspect to his premises, whereupon we established that he was indeed housing the aforementioned assailant.”
Right, so you mean you followed the guy home, and that’s where he was hiding the other criminal, right?
The thing is, these people DO have the tools to say what they mean without trying to sound cleverer than they are or need to be, giving themselves some misguided sense of self-importance. Just as airline cabin crew need only remind you, the passenger, “to take everything with you when you leave,” rather than “ensuring that you remove all personal effects from the cabin upon disembarkation.”
Of course there is a time and place for complex language. But at the risk of giving away any copywriter state secrets, my top tip to the world in general is (unless you’re writing for an academic audience) if there’s a simple way to say something, say it that way. The fewer syllables and words per sentence the better.
If you try to spice up your language unnecessarily, you might risk sounding like a bit of a goon.
Ashley is a copywriter, blogger and editor