Tag Archives: Language

Kiwi Terms That Still Crack (Or Trip) Me Up

I’ve lived in New Zealand for over ten years now and I’m still learning the language.  Shortly after moving here I actually went to get my hearing tested.  I told the technician that I couldn’t understand what people were saying to me. 

My hearing checked out fine—I just needed time to adjust to the accent and pacing of the way the locals spoke.  I’ve since gotten used to that but I’m still learning some of the more interesting phrases and terms in use down here.  I’m providing a sampling, with translations.

Bach, n. – Not the composer.  The word is pronounced batch and it means a small holiday home.  I’m told that the term is short for “bachelor” because originally baches were places just the men would go to fish and party, as in “Fancy a trip to the bach this weekend?”

Bring a Plate – You might see this on an invitation and it doesn’t mean that the host is short of crockery. It means that it’s a potluck and you are supposed to bring some food along.  I’ve heard believable accounts of some literal minded people actually just bringing a plate.

Bob’s Your UncleYes, people actually say this.  It is used to denote completion or wrapping up of a (generally) complicated task.  So if your car won’t start, the panelbeater (see below) might say, “We’ll just hook up the jumper cables, give it a start and Bob’s Your Uncle.

Bugger all – Surprisingly a n. and not a v.  It means not much or nothing.  “What did you do today?” “Bugger all.”

Caravan, n. – Not a group of wandering gypsies but rather a house trailer or mobile home.  When not at home, you stop at the caravan park.

Cark it, vt. – Go on, take a guess.  It means to die and I apologize but I always laugh when someone uses it.  As in, “How’s Grannie?” “She carked it.”

Chock-a-block, adj. – Completely full and overflowing.  Often shortened to chockers, as in “I couldn’t find a park, the car park was chockers.”

Chuffed, vt. – Happy or thrilled.  “I was really chuffed when the neighbor’s dog carked it.”

Chunder, vt. – To vomit.  I’d love to know the origin of this term.  But I don’t.

Crikey dick, int. – I really have heard people say this. It is a term of amazement.  So a spectacular feat of chundering might elicit an awed Crikey dick.

Crook, n. – Ill or under the weather. As in “I had the flu.  I was crook for a week.”

Dag, n. – An essential part of your vocabulary.  Know that “dags” refers to the soiled wool surrounding the back end of a sheep.  “Rattle your dags,” means to move faster because presumably the dags on a running sheep rattle.  Use your imagination. So anything daggy is basically undesirable.  However, for some reason dag can also mean a funny story or person.  So be careful.

Dodgy, adj. – Dubious or questionable.  “Did you buy that used car?” “No, there was something dodgy about the salesman.”

Dummy, n. – Not what you think. A dummy is a baby’s pacifier.  I don’t expect most readers of this blog to have use for such a term, but it’s important to know that this word forms part of an important Kiwi phrase.  When a baby has a tantrum, the pacifier flies out of their mouth, so the term to denote an immature loss of control is “spit the dummy.”  In fact, in the debates before the national elections last year, one politician said that his opponent “spat the dummy,” over something.

Flannel, n. – Not your pajamas (which are called pyjamas down here, by the way).  A flannel is a wash cloth.  “The dog was so filthy I took a flannel to him.”

Flash, adj. – Upmarket or in good shape.  This word is important because it can be used to describe anything under just about any circumstances.  For example, “I wasn’t too chuffed about driving my flash car over this daggy road. It’s not too flash.”

Ice block, n. – Not a block of ice.  Well, maybe, technically.  An ice block is a popsicle.  What’s your favorite flavor?

Jandals, n. – Flip-flops in the rest of the world.  Standard Kiwi footgear.  The name is a contraction of “Japanese sandals,” which flip flops supposedly resemble.

Knackered, adj. – I love this word, partly because it has a funny sound and partly because, like flash it has amazing utility.  It primarily means no longer useful, broken or tired out with a connotation of beyond repair.  As in, “my hard drive crashed and my computer is knackered.” But it also is a term that you say when you don’t intend to exert further effort as in “Forget about it, I’m knackered.” Where does the word come from, you ask? Farm animals past their prime but not suitable to be slaughtered for meat are sent to the knacker yard.  I don’t know about you, but that’s as much as I want to know.

Legless, adj. – Extremely drunk.  Often associated with chundering.

Metal road, n. – A road paved with gravel.  It’s called a metal road because gravel is called metal.  But if you don’t know that you wonder, don’t you?  By the way, if you are driving on a metal road and the car in front of you throws up a piece of metal and it dings your windshield, you have what is referred to as a puckered screen. 

Munted, adj. – Broken or damaged.  “I dropped my phone. It’s like totally munted.”

No worriesA term of agreement.  When your teenaged son asks “Can I borrow the car?” You might say “No worries,” to mean yes, even though you have lots of worries about the proposition.

Panel beater, n. – Originally a body shop.  Fenders are referred to as panels down here, so when you have a prang, and your panel is dented, the panel beater pounds it back into shape, I guess.  Generic term for mechanic.

Serviette, n. – A napkin.  Don’t ask for a napkin in a restaurant because napkin means face towel and you don’t want that, unless you’ve spilled something.  And if you are in the kitchen, you don’t use a dish towel—it’s a tea towel.

Squiz, vi. – To check out or observe.  So if your car is making a funny noise, you might ask the panel beater to “have a squiz” at it. 

Suck the kumara, vt. – A kumara (pronounced koom ra) is a cross between a yam and a potato.  To suck the kumara is the same as to cark.  Don’t ask me why. Someone once told me that their Air New Zealand flight was cancelled because, in the words of the pilot, “One of the engines has sucked the kumara.”

Sweet asA universal term denoting approval or quality.  As in, “How’s the weather?” Sweet as.  Incidentally, it is common to append as to just about any adjective to intensify it.  As in, “Look at that spider.  It’s big as.”  Or.  “Turn on the heat. It’s cold as.” Or. “Have you had a squiz at John’s new car? It’s flash as.”

Shout, n./vt.  – To pick up the tab.  You say “my shout,” or “I’m shouting,” and everyone loves you.

She’ll be right – An all purpose phrase meaning everything will be OK.  “John, there’s water leaking into the boat.” “I’ve got the pump going.  She’ll be right.”

Tea, n. – Another simple term that can trip you up because of its multiple meanings.  Yes, it means the drink (black, green, iced, etc.).  But it also means a coffee break.  A break in the morning is “Morning tea,” and one in the afternoon is “Afternoon tea.” But wait, there’s more.  It also means the evening meal.  So if someone invites you to tea, you might want to clarify what’s going to happen because you could get tea and biscuits or a whole meal.

Throw a sickie, vt. – To call in sick when you aren’t

Turn to custardRefers to plans that don’t quite work out.  I wanted to throw a sickie but it was raining so that turned to custard.

Zed, n. – The last letter of the alphabet.  Don’t say “zee.” No one will know what you are talking about.  Really.

Now I hope you won’t have any trouble when you come down here and hire a caravan and go out to the bach, put on your jandals and do bugger all.  Go easy on the piss because you don’t want to get legless and chunder. 

Also, don’t hire a car from a dodgy dealer, because it might be munted and you’ll have to take it to the panelbeater if it decides to suck the kumara.  Don’t worry about driving on metal roads—she’ll be right. 

If some locals invite you for tea, be sure to ask what time to come and ask if it’s their shout or if you should bring a plate. If you stay at a flash hotel, they’ll have a flannel in the loo and tea towels and serviettes in the kitchen.  But it’s more fun to stay in a caravan park.  If it’s not peak summer they usually aren’t chock a block, but sometimes the facilities are a little knackered.  And don’t spit the dummy if all you can get at the shop is an ice block. 

I’m sure you’ll be chuffed when you have a squiz at all the beautiful sights down here.  But it’s so far away that you will definitely be knackered from the flight back.  But it will be sweet as if you can throw a sickie, but make sure your boss doesn’t figure it out or it will turn to custard on you.  Crikey dick, I think I’ve covered it A to Zed.  And Bob’s your uncle.

New Buzzwords For The New Year

Happy New Year!

This time of year we get inundated with lists.  In the past few days I’ve seen lists of the top ten best and worst of just about everything in 2011.

My theory is that we like lists because (1) they are easy to read and (2) they give us a sense of community when we find that we share similar likes and dislikes as other people.

But I managed to find a list that is neither easy to read nor conducive to a feeling of belonging to the mainstream.  It is a list of the top twenty-five up and coming business buzzwords from Business News Daily.

These are terms that we are likely to hear in 2012 as people attempt to make simple things sound esoteric and complicated.  For some reason, business people like to do that.

Sometimes this is desirable, at least for people delivering bad news.  For example, if a company’s sales are down, why would they want to say something as prosaic as “sales and profits are down” and run the risk of having to explain why when they could say, “the Y axis of the revenue curve continues to sustain sub optimal impetus over time with a concomitant microeconomic entropic impact on earnings.”

When giving a presentation, it is infinitely preferable to bore and confuse your audience, rather than to simply bore them.  And when you make people think that things are really complex and difficult, they like you.  Because then they don’t feel so bad about not being able to figure out what’s going on.

Let’s have a look at some of these terms that you are likely to hear this year to see how simple ideas can be complicated with fancy terminology.

Crowdsource.  Not a term you could reasonably work out from the context.  I thought it referred to the source of a crowd as in “The Justin Bieber concert proved to be a real crowdsource.”  But no.  It means outsourcing your work to the crowd.  It originally referred to diverse groups developing software and this was supposed to be Good because theoretically everyone would contribute their own personal cool feature or idea and the solution would be all things to all people.  This is why your smart phone is smarter than you (i.e., you can’t figure out how it works).

Another more disturbing application of crowdsourcing was when the company that makes Doritos had customers off the street design the Doritos Superbowl ad.  A lot of people in the marketing/PR world were breathless over the idea because the theory is that the most effective advertising would be designed by the very people who were supposed to be targeted by the advertising.  But it sounds to me like making a prisoner plug in the electric chair before they strap him in.

Fremium.  A really stupid word to describe something we all dislike.  It is a combination of the words “free” and “premium” and refers to a product offering in which you get part for free and then pay a premium for other (indispensable) parts.  So you might get a phone for free but pay through the nose for a calling plan.  So basically you should ignore the “free” in fremium.

Digital nomad.  Someone who can work anywhere because of technology.  Big deal.  Why do we need a term to describe that phenomenon?  When was the last time you were at a party and someone came up to you and introduced themselves saying, “Hi, I’m Waldo Poindexter, digital nomad.”  But it sounds better than saying, “My job doesn’t require me to interact with other people and I like it that way.  So does my boss.”

Big data.  Wow, this one’s really esoteric.  It refers to giant databases of stuff that are hard to manage with traditional database management systems.  Things like weather patterns, population trends and the list of Paris Hilton’s Twitter followers are big data.  For some reason, no one seems to be talking about little data.

Knowledge economy.  Another economy that we like to talk about because it’s doing better than the real economy.  The problem is that you can be rich in knowledge and still be broke.  And worse, there are a lot of really wealthy people out there who are fairly bankrupt when it comes to the knowledge economy.

Skills transfer.  Just what you think it means.  But doesn’t your resume sound better if you say, “I am looking for an opportunity for a mutually beneficial skills transfer,” instead of, “I’m hoping to put my years of fast food service experience to good use”?

Cross platform. A fancy term to describe why iTunes from Apple runs on your Windows computer.

Social looping.  Getting in the loop, e.g., by joining a Facebook group.  Now you know.

Gamification.  I don’t know what’s worse—the word or the concept.  The idea is that everyone likes playing games, especially video games, so if we make everything look and feel like a game, life will be better.  Already widespread in schools, someone is trying to do this for tax return preparation.  How will you win that one?

Although a lot of fancy new terms are IT related, not surprisingly the best ones come from the world of marketing.  Here’s a sample of some new names given to old ideas.

Authority marketing.  Remember those TV ads where the guy in the white coat says “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV?”  That’s authority marketing.  The idea is that people will listen to (and buy stuff on the recommendation of) experts.

Osmosis marketing.  A fancy term for a horrible concept that is employed by marketers who can’t find an authority to advertise their product.  The idea is that if we are exposed to enough advertising about a product, eventually we will break down and buy it.  When used in a military context, the term is “saturation bombing.”

Retail curation.  Gird thy loins for this one.  A curator in a museum is the person who organizes the exhibits and makes them tell a meaningful story.  A retail curator organizes products in a retail setting and, according to trendwatching.com, pre-selects “what to buy, what to experience, what to wear, what to read, what to drink and so on.”  So basically this is outsourcing your life to someone else.  I don’t like this concept because (1) I believe we should exercise our free will and (2) it is responsible for things like Crocs and the overabundance of vampire and zombie books and movies.

I’m not sure you will find many opportunities to use these words in casual conversation in the New Year, but at least the next time you are exposed to some osmosis marketing, do some social looping or are victimized by a fremium scheme, you will know what to call it.  And if you see a retail curator–run!

Words That Should Be Given A Rest

So far, we’ve talked about words that are almost forgotten but shouldn’t be, words that sound like they mean something else , and now it’s time to talk about words that haven’t been forgotten, but should be.

You know what I’m talking about—words that are either so overused they’ve become meaningless, or are just plain irritating.

One of the big challenges in talking about words that should be used less frequently is to limit the discussion to words and not discuss the many phrases out there that are overused and therefore rapidly becoming meaningless.  Examples of overused, and under useful phrases are things like “at the end of the day,” or “having said that.”  Both are euphemisms for “I don’t care what you think, I’m doing it my way.”

But we’re going to keep it simple and just talk about words.  Here goes.

Basically—“Basic” means of, relating to, or forming the base or essence.  So, for example, it is not possible for a building to be basically finished if it is still under construction, because the essence of a finished building is that it is no longer under construction.  You see where I’m going with this?  A good rule of thumb is to never use “basically” if you can’t substitute “totally.”   While we’re on the subject, fundamentally is often overused in lieu of basically.  Fundamentally should never be used unless it is followed by the word “flawed.”

Basically under construction not basically finished

Branding—I was under the impression that this is something done to cows and cowards.  But no.  It’s something that companies pay big money to consultants to improve.  I decided that the word is overused when I read an article about how the New Zealand tourism industry was reacting to the Christchurch earthquake.  “Inbound Tour Operators Council president Brian Henderson says some images of Christchurch would have to be taken out of the branding.” 

Cerulean—Maybe it’s because of the recent Academy Awards and Grammys and BAFTAs, but I’ve come across this word much more than I should.  It means blue, specifically the blue of the sky.  So it’s been used lately to describe everyone’s eyes or gowns.  It also crops up a lot in travel brochures to describe the ocean.  I think it’s pretentious.  Just call blue blue.

Innovative—It’s not this word’s fault that it is overused.  Technically it means “new” so unless you are a hermit, you should encounter the innovative with some degree of regularity.  Its use, however, should be curtailed when it is used incorrectly, i.e., to describe old things that marketing people want us to think are new.  So while Lady Gaga might be the “new” Madonna, I’m not sure she is all that innovative.

Landscape—According to my dictionary, landscape means a picture representing a view of natural inland scenery, the art of depicting such scenery, the landforms in a region in the aggregate or the portion of territory that the eye can comprehend in a single view.  I don’t have a problem if it’s used to describe a way of printing documents—after all, sometimes you need to adapt old words to describe new things.  But unless you are using it to describe bushes and trees or paper orientation, I think it’s part of the overused words landscape.  Like when a McDonald’s representative was quoted as describing happy meal toys from the Star Wars landscape.  Unless they were talking about a landfill where they’d probably ended up.

Literally—I might say that I’m literally tired of hearing people overuse literally, but that would, literally, be an example of how the word is improperly used.  Because if I were “literally tired” of something it would mean that energy was being drawn from me by its very existence.  It is ironic that one of the meanings of literally is “free from exaggeration or embellishment,” because it has become a sort of means of verbal exaggeration.   I was looking for an example of dubious use of the word and came across this wonderful sentence from the New Zealand Herald (which has a few other grammatical howlers as well):  “The distinctive shape, light and shadow created by a well-chosen pendant can literally transform a room with the flick of a switch, from the bigger is better approach to clusters of naked bulbs.”  I literally can’t decipher the literal meaning of that sentence.

Passionate and Sustainable—These words have been discussed before so we won’t talk about them now.  But no list of overused words would be complete without them.

Pushback—This word really describes the process by which airplanes back away from the gate.  A big tractor pushes them back, ergo, pushback.  But for some reason it has become a politically correct euphemism for disagree.  So when you tell your boss you want a raise because you work so hard he or she might say, “I’m going to pushback a little.”  In other words, you don’t get a raise.  Aside from the fact that it’s stupid, the other reason I don’t like this word is because of the mental image it creates.  If you don’t agree with me, I’d rather you said, “you’re wrong, and I’ll tell you why your wrong,” instead of trying to get away from me.

Robust—Basically, and I’m using that word correctly, robust means strong, vigorous and healthy.  It can also mean firm in purpose or strongly formed or constructed.  Let’s face it, it’s a versatile word and that has led to its overuse.  A recent scan through the daily paper discovered the following things described as robust: many aspects of the economy, a sports teams defence, a company’s recruiting process, a software company’s new product development process, the way the police responded to a problem and what space shuttle re-entry tiles need to be.  As I say, a versatile word.

And last but not least:  Awesome.  Wouldn’t it be awesome if everything weren’t awesome?

I’m sure you have a few others you could add to the list, but basically, I think it would be literally awesome if we made the communication landscape more robust by pushing back when people with passion in their cerulean eyes try to convince us that they have an innovative branding idea. 

Don’t you?

Words To Get Peoples’ Attention

A while back, I did a post on words that shouldn’t be allowed to fall into disuse, or should I say, desuetudeToday I offer another set of words worthy of preservation.  Why do you want to know these words?  Aside from the intrinsic value of increasing your vocabulary and improving the exactitude of your communications, they also have something in common.  They sound like they mean something very different than their actual meanings and that can make them fun to use in daily conversation.  People may not know what you are talking about, but you will get their attention. 

Afflatusn.  No, it doesn’t mean gas.  An afflatus is a divine imparting of knowledge or inspiration.  You might say, “Have you heard Lady Gaga’s latest song?  It sounds like she had an afflatus.

Aprosexian.  Abnormal inability to concentrate.  I’m not sure how alarmed you may be if your teenager’s teacher sends home a note saying, “Joshua’s grades are falling off.  I think he’s got a bad case of aprosexia.”

Crapulousn.  Not what you might think!  This word describes someone who eats or drinks too much, or the way one feels after eating or drinking too much.  Before sitting down to a fancy dinner you might say to the hostess, “I bet I’m going to feel crapulous after this dinner!”

Cunctationn. Hesitation or delay.  People who advocate that young people abstain from sex might suggest that they practice cunctation.

Deflagratev. To burn.  If you accidentally ruin the morning toast you could explain “It looks like we’ve had a problem with deflagration in the kitchen today.”

Formicatev. Everyone’s heard this one.  It means to swarm, and refers especially to ants.  Apparently, ants have formic acid in their bodies and an ant colony is called a ‘formicary.’  Technically you could get away with putting on Facebook something like:  “I had a great time formicating in the mosh pit at the Lady Gaga concert.”  But I wouldn’t advise it.

Fugaciousadj. Lasting a short time, evanescent, disappearing before the usual time.  This word comes from the same source as ‘fugue’ meaning fleeting or flying.  You might challenge your co-workers by asking “Is your pay check as fugacious as mine?”

Futtockn. One of the curved timbers joined together to form the lower part of the compound rib of a ship.  What, you thought it was a combination of ‘fat’ and ‘buttock??’ 

Labileadj. Readily open to change; readily or continually undergoing chemical, physical, or biological change or breakdown, unstable.  I know what you were thinking.  The next time you see a pyramid of cheerleaders, you might say, “Uh-oh, labile.”

Lucubrationn. Laborious study or meditation; studied or pretentious expression in speech or writing.  As in, “I hope this post isn’t too lucubracious.”

Maceratev. To cause to waste away by or as if by excessive fasting; to soften or wear away esp. as a result of being wetted or steeped.  So when your chronically dieting friend shows up you can say, “Still macerating I see.”

Titularadj. Existing in title only; having the title and honors belonging to an office without the duties, responsibilities or functions.  A while ago a children’s clothing manufacturer started selling bras for 6 year olds.  I suppose you could describe them as titular bras.

Turdiformadj. Of or like a thrush.  The Latin name for the thrush family is ‘Turdidae.’  So you could tell your wife, “I can’t cut the grass, there are some turdiforms on the lawn.”

I can’t guarantee how your social standing will be affected if you sprinkle your conversation with these words, but you might be amused when your less erudite interlocutors think you have committed a faux pas! 

And at least you’ll get their attention.

Words That Shouldn’t Be Allowed To Die

From the Department of Scary Statistics, we get the report that the average 15 to 24 year old now spends an average of eight minutes a day reading.  Yes, reading.  Not only that, one third of US teenagers send over 100 text messages a day and people aged 8 to 18 now spend 7.5 hours per day interacting with an electronic device such as a cell phone, computer, iPod or TV.  And because they multitask they actually are getting something like 11 hours of media “exposure” in those 7.5 hours. 

A lot of people think that this is wonderful and inevitable and that people like me, who wonder if it’s really all that wonderful, are reactionary Luddites who should get with the program. 

Maybe, but recently I’ve found that I’m having increasing difficulty communicating with technophiles.  Partly that’s because they never look up from their cell phones, but also it’s because of an increasing divergence in world view and communication techniques.  I’m not just talking about the fact that they don’t have a historical or literary frame of reference or think that Thor is really just a comic book character.

I’m talking about words which are rapidly falling into disuse.  Every year someone publishes an article about new words that have come into the lexicon.  Words like tweet, and unfriend.  But no one talks about the very rich words that are being forgotten as communication increases exponentially in volume while decreasing equally exponentially in content. 

With that in mind, I’ve pulled together a list of words that should not be allowed to die.  Of course there are a lot more words on the endangered list, but this is a sampler.  Because some of them may already be obscure, I’ve given the definition.  And for the benefit of the many Gen Y people who regularly read this blog, I’ve included an example of how the word can be used in daily conversation.  Here goes:

Behoovev. Although some people may think this means getting a new pair of Boho boots, it actually means necessary, proper or advantageous.  Is it applicable today?  You betcha:  “Amber, I saw the pics from your party out on Facebook.  It might behoove you to take them down before you apply for a job.”

Desuetuden. Discontinuance from use.  A description of the words we are talking about, and this word should be kept alive because technological change demands its use, as in: “Ever since I got my iPad, my iPod and phone have so fallen into desuetude.”

Euthenicsn. A science that deals with development of human well-being by improvement of living conditions.  I admit, there is a bit of snob appeal to this word because a lot of people won’t know if you are talking about ‘eugenics’ or ‘euthanasia’ and think that it’s time for a moral argument.  But no one in their right mind would be against ‘euthenics.’  As in, “I’m so into euthenics.  I mean, imagine if everyone had an iPad.”

Hebetatev. To make dull or obtuse.  “OMG this teacher is so boring he actually hebetates sex education!”

Ineluctableadj. Not to be avoided, changed or resisted; inevitable.  “Josh and I are so going to the Prom together.  It’s like totally ineluctable.” 

Jejuneadj. Lacking interest or significance, lacking maturity.  “OMG, if her Tweets get any more jejune I’ll have to stop following Paris Hilton.”

Mountebankn. A person who sells quack medicines from a platform; a boastful, unscrupulous pretender.  You may have noticed that in the blogosphere you can’t always tell the mountebanks from the real experts.  Your friend may say, “Some mountebank sold me this fake Gucci bag on eBay.”

Nugatoryadj. Of little or no consequence, trifling, inconsequential, having no force.   “My mother said she would ground me if I go to the concert next week.  And I’m like, ‘Mom, that’s totally nugatory.’”

Pusillanimousadj. Lacking courage and resolution, marked by contemptible timidity.  As in “Josh broke up with me by sending a text.  I mean, how pusillanimous can you get?”

Perspicacityn. Acute mental vision or discernment.  “Well, Josh finally got the perspicacity to dump her.”

Quotidiann. Occurring every day; routine.  Another word whose appeal comes in part from it not sounding anything like what it means.  As in “Downloading iPhone Apps from Apple’s Apps store has gotten to be so quotidian.”

Reconditeadj. Hidden from sight; incomprehensible to one of ordinary understanding or knowledge.  “Have you seen Grand Theft Auto IV?  Some of the new features are totally recondite, man.”

Please join me in using these words and saving them from extinction.  Now that you know what they mean, prevent verbal desuetude by, in your quotidian conversations, demonstrating your perspicacity by using these words.  It is not ineluctable that you will hebetate your conversation and the risk of being branded a mountebank is nugatory.  Only jejune and pusillanimous people won’t appreciate your recondite efforts at euthenics!  It behooves them to get a dictionary!

Is Passion Sustainable?

Have you noticed how you can’t go anywhere without hearing about something that is ‘sustainable’ or someone who is ‘passionate’ about something?

People who are passionate about the sustainability of the English language should be alarmed. 

Because overuse of those words has resulted in them losing some of their richness.  According to my dictionary, passionate can mean not only enthusiastic, but also filled with anger and affected by sexual desire.  So technically, if someone tells you that they are passionate about whales, you don’t know, without wider context, whether they hate them, like them a lot or have rather kinky tastes.

Similarly, sustain means to nourish, to prove, to prolong, to support, withstand, bear up under, or to admit as valid.  So you could say, “It is not sustainable that sustainability of the arguments about global ‘sustainability’ can be sustained unless I get sustained.”  (Translation:  You can’t prove that the validity of the arguments about global warming can be supported until you feed me).

What has happened is that passionate and sustainability have become code words that have a Pavlovian effect on us.  They are communications shorthand designed to produce a desired reaction in our brains.   I was talking to an HR person who said that if she saw another resume cover letter describing the writer as ‘passionate’ about something she would embark on a screaming binge that would probably not be sustainable.

To prove my point I did a couple of Google searches to see which terms returned the most hits.  Have a look at the number of hits each search returned: 

There are over 50 times more hits for ‘sustainability’ than there are for the eminently sustainable Queen!

The theory is that our brains have been trained to say “passionate equals good and sustainable equals good.” 

So it should come as no surprise that these words crop up a lot in marketing material and in communications from politicians.

In fact, what got me focused on this issue is that on October 9 we will be electing the mayor of Auckland.  Down here we vote for mayor by mail—they send you the ballot and a booklet with each candidate’s picture and their statement of why they should be elected.  A couple of days ago we got our booklets.  Among other things, they contain lots of passion.

Politics in NZ is refreshing by comparison to other places I’ve lived and there is a reasonable amount of transparency.  There are limits on contributions to politicians and political parties and there are spending limits for election campaigns.  For example, for the national elections, the campaign period is limited to three months before the election and during that time, political parties can only spend $1 million.  Individual candidates can only spend $20,000.  For local elections the limits are based on population size of the area.  There are also limits on how much individuals and groups can contribute to parties and candidates and there are lots of disclosure rules so you know who gave how much to whom.

This has the great benefit of (1) preventing big bucks from unduly influencing things and (2) saving the populace from nonstop campaigning.

One of the best rules is that candidates can only put posters and signs up in specified locations and are required to take them down immediately after the election.

The biggest benefit though is that it makes the political process much more inclusive.  If the most anyone can spend is $20,000, being rich is not a requirement for entry.  In fact there are very few barriers to running for office.  This is evidenced by the fact that this time there are 23 people running for mayor of Auckland.  None of them are affiliated with any national political party.  In fact 17 are declared independents.  The other six belong to “other” parties such as the Communist League.

Although the booklet of candidates is professionally done, the blurbs, most no doubt written by the candidates themselves, are unvarnished and unedited and give interesting insights into the people.  These blurbs are what got me thinking about overuse of the words “passionate” and “sustainability.”  Most of the candidates are passionate about sustaining things.  Except in the case of the Communist candidate, who is passionate about not sustaining “power [in] the hands of the capitalist rulers.”  By the way, no one came out as passionate about masturbation, one way or the other.

But the candidate who emerged as a breath of fresh air (no pun intended as you will see) is Nga Dave, who seems to have replaced Scruff Ralph as the real peoples’ candidate.  Scruff Ralph finished 12th out of 15 contenders in the last election.  His tagline was “A Vote for Scruff is a Vote of No Confidence.”  In an interview he stated that the most important election issue for him was that he was looking for a job.

Anyway, Nga tells us:  “Formal education played a very small role in my life.  I left school at 14 once I discovered marijuana and I have walked with marijuana for 30 years.  I am a criminal in the sense that I smoke illegal substances.  But in my heart I know that I am not bad.  I am one of the people I want to represent.  The common people.  I want to resurrect democracy of the people, for the people, by the people.”

Now isn’t that more interesting than hearing that someone is passionate about sustaining things?

There are two front runners in the election—the current mayor and the mayor of a city that is being amalgamated with Auckland in a big local government consolidation.  They have been getting all of the media attention and I thought I knew who I was voting for.  But then I got the booklet and found out about people like Nga Dave . . .

I’ll report the results in two weeks!