Each year, we compile a list of worst words to highlight the importance of clear public language. We look for new (or newly prominent) words and phrases that are misleading or downright deceitful, unclear or ambiguous, or just plain ugly! Here is our short list for the year.
2017 Winner: Alternative facts
On his first day in the job, President Donald Trump’s then press secretary lied about the size of the crowd attending the inauguration. Defending him, counsellor Kellyanne Conway said the secretary had merely given alternative facts. Just to clarify, a fact cannot have an ‘alternative’ that is also a fact.
Spin and doublespeak
The Trump administration also gave us instinctive correctness. The press secretary said Trump was instinctively correct that disgraced national security advisor Michael Flynn had committed ‘no violation’. So if you are ever wrong about something, you can simply claim you were instinctively correct. And day is actually night.
While political doublespeak was bad in 2017, some corporations also put a spin on poor customer service. When a video of security staff dragging a bleeding passenger from his assigned seat went viral, United Airlines tried to downplay the overbook situation that led to an involuntary de-boarding. The CEO finally issued a lukewarm apology for having to reaccommodate passengers, igniting a social media firestorm.
Australia had its own spin when it came to social issues. As the debate raged on same sex marriage, a spokesperson for the ‘No’ campaign suggested we consider alternatives such as garriage, unism or pairage instead of extending the definition of marriage.
Orwellian trends in American government continued when the State Department started to describe sex education as sexual risk avoidance. Then to up the ante, health agencies were sent a list of forbidden words, never to be used in budget documents. Science-based advice is now to be known as science in consideration with community standards and wishes.
2017 was a notably bad year for companies making up ugly words to promote a product. Betting company Sportsbet came up with Merry Puntmas to celebrate the big racing season in October and November. Apart from bringing up Christmas way too soon, there’s something particularly inappropriate about turning a religious and family celebration into a gambling promotion.
When GE set up an Australian bank, its marketing tagline: ‘These are the Betterers. Latitude Financial’s personal loan specialists. Need a better holiday, a better car, or a better whatever? Talk to the Betterers.’ Surely they could have come up with something better themselves.
The umbrella company for Australian lotteries added joyments to the 2017 abuses of the English language. Joyments, they explain, are those everyday moments of joy, like ‘opening a brand new, even better, cat meme’ or having ‘a scratchie in your pocket’. While we wouldn’t dare question how much joy people get from cat memes, there is certainly little joy in joyments as a word.
When the Australian National Dictionary picked Kwaussie as their word of the year, quite a few people were surprised. Apparently this hybrid of Kiwi and Aussie describes Barnaby Joyce’s dual citizen dilemma. But no-one except the dictionary had heard of the word, which just isn’t how language works.
West Australian separatists tried to ride the Brexit wave by coining the term WAxit. When three of the first four search results for WAxit lead to a car wash, it’s time to rethink the name of your movement.
Buzzwords and jargon
In Australian skies, Regional Express had problems when a propeller fell off a REX plane. The pilot reported: ‘We’ve just had uncommanded engine operations and then our propeller has just sheared off.’ Did air traffic control really need to know a lost propeller wasn’t a ‘commanded’ action?
While the English language is always evolving, sometimes we already have a useful word for a concept. A lifestyle blog described the millennial innovation of co-living as follows: ‘You’ve heard about co-working spaces where several businesses or entrepreneurs get together to work, but have you ever heard of co-living? … It’s another real Millennial innovation from the generation who are always rewriting the rules of the game.’ We used to call this ‘flatting’. The same people tried to convince us that living can be a service: ‘As we decouple the function of living from the physical location, we need to help positively curate more communities. Eventually, we will move to a model of subscription homes or providing living as a service.’ We used to call this ‘renting’.
Other jargon proved much harder to decipher this year, particularly anything to do with electricity. When the Turnbull government asked the Energy Security Board for detailed modelling of its National Energy Guarantee, the board outlined an optimised non-linear trajectory for reducing emissions. Any idea what this actually means? We don’t know either, and that’s probably the point.
Tautologies, non-apologies and other cacologies
While tautologies are reasonably common, a quadruple tautology is rare. That’s why this Trump tweet takes the tautology prize for 2017: ‘It is my opinion that many of the leaks coming out of the White House are fabricated lies made up by the #FakeNews media.’ To be fair, honourable mention also goes to former First Lady Michelle Obama, speaking about social media: ‘You don’t just say what’s on your mind. You don’t just tweet every thought. Most of your first initial thoughts are not worthy of the light of day.’
2017 was also a rich year for non-apologies. After the Grenfell Tower fire in London, the local mayor reluctantly resigned with this classic non-apology: ‘I have to accept my share of responsibility for these perceived failings.’ Disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein opted for denial of sexual harassment (‘all of these relationships were consensual’) before veering into vague language about ‘the community’ and ‘second chances’. But the worst non-apology of the year comes from Australian television personality Don Burke when confronted by evidence of sexual harassment: ‘I might have terrified a few people, or whatever, and I shouldn’t have done that, but these sort of things bear no relation to me and what I am about.’
A reliable contributor of mispronunciations is Senator Pauline Hanson, who said she found the covert recording of one of her staff very fixacious. A vexatious fix?
Speaking of fixing, our winner of the worst sign of the year goes to the local council that produced this cryptic notice: ‘No fixing of restraints to the handrail stanchions is permitted without the express permission of The Blue Mountains City Council.’ When we asked the public for help translating this, interpretations included:
- No chaining your bike to the fence
- No attaching rock climbing gear
- Bungee jumping strictly forbidden
- ‘Hey cops: don’t handcuff folks to the railing posts without asking us first, as the skeletons are bothersome’.