Tilting at Wordmills

This morning, a friend sent me a message asking if anonymize is the verb form of anonymous; and my first impulse was to say that no such verb exists, other than perhaps some corporate neologism.  A quick check on the dictionary installed on my computer revealed that anonymize is a word, and this was corroborated by dictionary.com and other online sources.  Out of curiosity, though, I blew the dust off my Concise Oxford Dictionary printed in the 1990s, and satisfied my initial instinct and found no verb form whatsoever for anonymous. So, the word is indeed a digital-age idiom, although I cannot find its origin on the Internet, just myriad uses, mostly in reference to what can or cannot be done to one’s data.

It’s tough to be a word snob these days, particularly when it comes to verbs.  As with the example above, our technological lives seem to insist that happily sedentary nouns get up and do a little work from time to time.  I’m still not over telephony’s addition of star-sixty-nining (which will mean nothing to anyone under 40), so I admit to a slight crimp in the epiglottis every time I use any conjugation of the new verb form to friend.

Admittedly, part of what makes a journey in English exciting is that, like the universe itself, our language is complex to the point of near chaos.  Like the stars, English words form, remain relevant for a period of time, then die and yield elements that coalesce into new words around which new systems of meaning begin to revolve.  The capricious nature of English that the foreign student finds so frustrating is precisely what the native writer loves about the medium.  One need never gaze at the same sky twice.

Why then do any of us word warriors bother to complain or even question corporate-speak and other modern coinages? If we can enjoy a frabjous day among the momeraths with Lewis Carroll, why scorn those who wish to circle back to download a client’s asks and realign the deliverables to achieve greater globality?  Why does all that sound so awful when, to the contrary, googling seems just fine?  Well, for one thing, the verb google is fun to say; but it also accurately and succinctly describes the intended action better than other available words or phrases.  There’s no way the drab and wordy imperative Look it up on the Internet can compete with the trim and bouncy Google it. And this of course is the brass ring of branding — to become a household term. 

By contrast, an expression like globality is a homely little non-noun that serves no purpose other than to sow more confusion in the increasingly vague parlance of business.  Even the adjective global needs sufficient context and qualifiers in order to give it meaning, so what concept does globality more succinctly convey were we to allow it at the grown-ups’ table?

When someone, say a client or a boss, inquires, “What is your ask of me?” both courtesy and job security require that you do not respond with, “What the hell are you talking about?”  And if this linguistic butcher happens to be a senior executive, you can bet the shoe money her subordinates will be repeating this idiotic expression before long, not only assaulting the language but also infusing it with the aromas of laziness and sycophancy.

Still,  why do we uppity word lovers even care what these suits do to the language? In an ever expanding universe that now includes about 600,000 entries in the OED, what’s the big deal about a little jargon here and there?  Speaking personally, the effort is a Quixotic desire to maintain some order amid the chaos.  Or to be more accurate, to maintain the chaos that gives both meaning and color to communication.  The worst thing about corporate speak is not the abuse of individual words (although that isn’t pretty) but the resulting homogenization of meaning.  Switching metaphors from the cosmos to food, the English vocabulary offers the most diverse ingredients of any language in the world, but corporate culture wants to transform every meal into a bologna sandwich.


2 thoughts on “Tilting at Wordmills

  1. Spot on. (What does THAT mean?) I’ve begun to wonder how they even teach English sentence structure in middle school these days, what with nouns becoming verbs and fragments all over the place. Still, as a writer/editor I find some of this freedom kind of fun.

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