What is the value of words? The euro crisis, Shakespeare and the 2012 Olympics

The current Greece-led euro crisis – #Grexit – may get a lot worse after the second national Greek election on 17 June. A lot (billions of euros) depends on a little (very small percentage differences in voter responses). (I leave to one side how much damage Chancellor Merkel might cause with a very few wrong words.) What, runs the discussion, is the least worst way to manage the drastic over-valuation of Greek assets: bail Greece out again or force them to leave the Euro? What is definitely not up for disagreement is that the value of Greek assets is not what people liked to think it was. Not to mention the Spanish and Italian – and the English? …

But this blog is about communication, not economics. If I may take the financial metaphor very seriously, though, do words have value? Does every language have a Central Bank of Meaning and Expressiveness? How might communication show up on an imaginary balance sheet? I don’t just mean in dollars or pounds, though writers and publishing companies try, very literally, to turn words into money.

Cover of "The Elements of Style, Fourth E...

5/10. This is a bit fussy and insight-free. It is also one of those few books known by the names of the authors, so at least it makes their names clear.

How might we increase the value of words? And what makes them depreciate? In a previous post about the power of words I quoted from Strunk and White (The Elements of Style, 4th edn, New York: Longman, 2000, p. 76): ‘Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able.’ This kind of abundant good sense in a highly apposite money metaphor is a valuable asset that has earned their book multimillion sales. Moreover, they write in a fine and enduring tradition of American ethical pragmatism that wants to make the best out of what there is, not what might be; the writing transforms the words/world ‘out there’ into things-for-us; this is true not just for language but also for the design of buildings, furniture, cars and computers. Apple is the world’s most valuable publicly traded company because at core it has a simple message: ‘Here are some things we’ve worked hard on and we care about. We really think they are good. Trust us.’ Yes, we all know they make mistakes but mostly they deliver on promises handsomely. We’re some way away from Strunk and White here, but I wonder if we in the UK have lost track of this kind of business decency.

As an example of how not to build long-term value I have already had a recent go at Alan Sugar, the UK’s parody of Steve Jobs, currently parodying himself in the BBC TV show The Apprentice. What is shocking is how the energy and enthusiasm of young people who want to do well in business is turned into an embarrassing dog-eat-dog anti-ethical freak show where long-term product development, loyalty and reputation count for nothing. They praise their own modest skills to the sky while shamelessly stabbing each other in the front. Meanwhile they learn how to grovel to power: ‘Good afternoon, Lord Sugar’, ‘Yes, Lord Sugar’, ‘No, Lord Sugar’. This programme, like another embarrassingly sycophantic BBC offering, Dragons’ Den, dresses itself up as a true reflection of UK commercial culture. These programmes are dramatic and enjoyable as entertainment, but please God no one takes them seriously as guides to doing business. British entrepreneurial spirit is supposed to have regenerated during the Thatcher era, but I suggest that, at least in the symbolic realm, the Iron Lady’s very own patent for whipping air (it’s a lot cheaper than cream) into ice cream is a poor precedent for sustainable business success. I don’t know whether Thatcher’s aerated ice cream is doing better business worldwide than the premium and super-premium ice creams made by US companies such as Ben and Jerry’s and Häagen-Dazs, but it’s clear which products we associate with long-term added value. In the world of media, brands building quality and excellence for Britain include the BBC (not always!), Penguin Books, J. K. Rowling, Ridley Scott and Danny Boyle. Short-termism and a disregard for quality – whether in ice cream, car manufacture, computers, publishing or writing – cheapens the reputation of Brand UK.

And language can also have air whipped into it. The legal profession is famous for using obscure language, but I also remember reading in Barbara Strang, A History of English (London: Methuen, 1970), that fifteenth-century lawyers perpetuated longer alternative spelling forms (honoure rather than honour or even honor) because they were paid per page. In general, though – and I hope to discuss this in more detail another time – meaning is most devalued by deception (deliberate or otherwise), false or empty feeling and the failure to consider readers and listeners respectfully.

Through the other end of the positive–negative telescope, I have just been to see The Globe Theatre’s excellent touring production of Henry V. Shakespeare is English’s super-super-premium brand, playing to packed houses, adding massive value to the English language and enhancing the international perception of the UK. One man’s work has enabled us to think thoughts and simply be in ways that might not otherwise have been possible. For this very reason, and because we need to communicate the notion of the best in British culture, Shakespeare is making a guest appearance at the London Olympics – see below …

*

Meanwhile, in this summer of sport here is an example of good communication, one of my favourite sporting quotes ever. It comes from the 2008 Beijing Olympics, just after the UK sprint cyclist Chris Hoy won his third gold medal. The commentator is more breathless than the competitor as he rushes up to him and blurts out:

A lot of people are talking about Chris Hoy. What does Chris Hoy say about Chris Hoy?

To which Hoy coolly replies, live on radio:

The day Chris Hoy starts talking about Chris Hoy in the third person is the day Chris Hoy disappears up his own arse.

(Commentator speechless. End of interview.) I apologize for repeating the swear word, but this is a man who is alert, decisive and incisive in his sentences as well as on the track. The truth and unrepressed energy communicates exactly who he is. So too does the deliberate and schooled blandness of footballers, but they communicate they have been trained to prefer bureaucracy to admitting their fear of making mistakes. Is it possible in the coming European championships that England’s football team will again look like frightened rabbits for this very reason?

Chris Hoy, ahead of Matt Crampton (Pruszkov, Poland, 2010). Here he is, doing what he does best – he’s a cyclist, not a diplomat. Image from Bryn Lennon/Getty Images Europe

Back to Shakespeare and the Olympics:

The London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony will be called ‘The Isles of Wonder’. Danny Boyle, the artistic director for the spectacular opening ceremony, said that the theme came from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest and that the show would celebrate the whole of the UK. Boyle is the Oscar-winning movie director of Slumdog Millionaire.
Boyle also added ‘our Isles of Wonder salutes and celebrates the exuberant creativity of the British genius in an Opening Ceremony we hope will be as unpredictable and inventive as the British people.’ He also revealed there would be a sequence dedicated to the achievements of NHS and it would be performed by the nurses and other member staffs.

Like any product launch, the stakes for Britain’s international reputation are high. For those of you who found someone sawing their own hand off (Boyle’s 127 hours) difficult to watch, here is something excruciating in a different kind of way: Britain’s official Olympic handover at the end of Beijing 2008. Britain’s gold medal in (toe-)curling starts at about 6 minutes 45 seconds in; it goes downhill all the way from there. Let’s hope the spirit of Shakespeare and ‘the exuberant creativity of the British genius’ in 2012 doesn’t mean recycling a tune from 1969 and David Beckham – mirabile dictu! – kicking a football off a bus.

I’m proud we in the UK have built some decent buildings in good time, and that the design agency SomeOne has done a fine job – with the unpromising Wolff Olins logo as template – on the signage/pictograms. The massive scale of poverty, ugliness and dereliction in the east of London has for a long time been a national disgrace, so siting the Olympics there is a really admirable and brave attempt to kickstart some regeneration. And London as a whole is looking very handsome: an impressive amount of forward planning is coming to fruition at the right time. I just hope, when the eyes of the world are upon us, that the messages of Britishness we give out particularly to ourselves will be full of true feeling, meaning and value.

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About Propagandum

I’ve been working in book publishing for over 30 years – an industry now in rapid transition. So I’m interested in foundational principles for media, writing and language – what lessons can we learn for how we can and should communicate? How can we make sense of media/technology? Can we transfer some skills from the old to the new? I hope to share (every week-ish) some things I think are wonderful, rich and important. I write longish posts because our complex and fascinating world cannot be reduced to soundbites. Please let me know what you think – contact me at david@propagandum.com
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6 Responses to What is the value of words? The euro crisis, Shakespeare and the 2012 Olympics

  1. Pingback: Bulgaria: What is the value of words The euro crisis Shakespeare and the | Euro Economy

  2. Thanks. What I was meaning was, it would be good to read some further blog posts on the idea. Maybe there should be some Propagandum Awards? For myself, it never worries me that ‘good’ begs a lot of questions: one of the things that makes citations of good practice interesting is that you get to see what the writer him/herself means. (Influenced here I think by William Righter who argued that what made lit crit interesting was not so much the judgements of the critics as the reasoning they gave.) To give an example, I happen not to share your liking of Strunk & White but find it interesting to read how you characterise their appeal

    • Propagandum says:

      I’m trying to imagine Oscar-style awards, complete with quivering thanks and sobbing … I’m not sure the world is ready for Shakespeare, Ridley Scott, King’s College Chapel and Haägen-Dazs competing for ‘Best sustainable added-value communication’ award. Your second point is bang on, and upon which I will continue to mull. Mull, mull …

  3. I like the provision of examples of good communication – this reader would welcome more of the same in due course!

    • Propagandum says:

      I.e. Shakespeare, Strunk and White, Apple, Haägen-Dazs, Ben and Jerry, BBC, Penguin, J. K. Rowling, Ridley Scott, Danny Boyle … I hope I am generous to quite a few people who do it well. I hope I am not mean to The Apprentice – I merely wonder if this kind of ethos reduces the possibility UK business might do well long term. I hope to say more good things about plenty of people doing good work – ‘good’ begs a lot of questions …

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