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.
2019 Winner: Freedom gas
As the moves toward cleaner energy gained momentum in 2019, the US Department of Energy decided to ramp up the spin. It rebranded natural gas as freedom gas and trumpeted its efforts to help export molecules of US freedom to the world.
In Australia, a protest saw Victoria Police in strife when an officer appeared to punch a female protester in the head. Police said the move was not a punch but a palm strike. Their spokeswoman explained: ‘This is a commonly applied clearance move in dynamic public order scenarios … ‘
Back in the US, media outlets reporting the Jeffrey Epstein case were criticised for softening the accusations against him. Stories used terms such as non-consensual sex (rape), underage woman (girl) and sex with a minor (child sex trafficking) to play down a much darker reality.
Meanwhile, when Sydney’s Mascot Towers apartment building started to crack, the engineer’s update to owners and residents was a masterclass in understatement. He advised, ‘It appears the building is moving in a downward motion.’ This means it’s sinking.
Insurer NIB drifted into obfuscation when it illegally rejected thousands of health insurance claims. Rather than it breaking the law, the company admitted its processes were just not aligned to the legislative requirements.
Over in Europe, when car manufacturer Ford announced it would be cutting labour costs, it joined a long line of corporations hiding behind doublespeak. Ford staff would not be made redundant. They would just go through a voluntary employee separation.
Non-apology of the year
In November, Prince Andrew gave a train-wreck television interview that explained why he had stayed at the house of Jeffrey Epstein even after Epstein was a convicted sex offender: ‘It was definitely the wrong thing to do but at the time I felt like it was the right and honourable thing to do and I admit fully that my judgement was probably coloured by my tendency to be too honourable but that’s just the way it is.’
When Tourism Australia launched its new marketing campaign, it wanted a memorable slogan. But with reactions ranging from muted embarrassment to sheer confusion, ‘Come live our philausophy’ had people talking for all the wrong reasons.
Cleanfluencers are people who have gained a significant following by turning tidying or cleaning into an artform. Two leading cleanfluencers – Marie Kondo and Sophie Hinchcliffe – have even inspired their own Frankenverbs: Kondoing and Hinching.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and his novelist wife MacKenzie referred to their separation as a long period of loving exploration. It unfortunately ended with their divorce.
With frictionless customer experience, ‘friction’ became one of the buzzwords of the year at a major retail conference in New York. We can only hope that it slips out of use without resistance.
Mixed metaphor of the year
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy took out the mixed metaphor category with this conceptual clanger: The line in the sand is without question. Enough of the old stumbling ways of putting Band-Aids on our fiscal house. But an honourable mention goes to President Trump for this anatomical muddle when announcing a plan to tackle kidney disease. You’ve worked so hard on the kidney. Very special. The kidney has a very special place in the heart. It’s an incredible thing.