Weird Words: 2017’s top five office discombobulators

Here at HN we’re passionate about clarity in our B2B copywriting services, but we’re also big fans of a peculiar word every now and then.

Now, if you enjoyed our top five Christmas weird words, then we have a treat for you — five more weird and wonderful words. This time around they all have business applications, but if you manage to weave any of these into your next meeting, we’ll be seriously impressed!

5. Eventuate

Number 5 on our list is ‘eventuate’. It sounds like one of those words that’s just been made up by some self-made business guru, and therein may lie its downfall — using it may make you look like one of those people who says ‘paradigm’ a lot, and that’s not good.
Definition — ‘Eventuate’ is a verb meaning to result in [something].
Origin — It’s a combination of the Latin words ‘eventus’ (event) and ‘actuare’ (carry out), and it originated in the US. The Oxford Dictionary states, rather wearily we think, “still regarded as an Americanism, though it has been employed by good writers in England.”
How you might use it — “Our Christmas campaign was a rousing success, and it should eventuate in us all getting bonuses this year.”
HN Weirdness Rating — 4/10

4. Asseverate

We particularly like this one because it sounds like a cruel and unusual medieval punishment, but is actually quite positive. Lots of potential for fun, then.
Definition — ‘Asseverate’, another verb, means to solemnly affirm [something]… to avouch or assert.
Origin — It comes from the Latin ‘assevērāre’ (to assert seriously).
How you might use it — There are plenty of ways you can use this in a business context but you can have particular fun with it if you work in HR or management: sit the employee down, fix them in your gaze and say, “We’ve been reviewing your performance this year and we can asseverate… that you’re employee of the year! Congrats!!”
HN Weirdness Rating — 6/10

3. Transpicuous

If there’s one thing we love at HN as much as words, it’s an example of delicious irony and this is a case in point because…
Definition — When applied to language, ‘transpicuous’ means plain, clear in meaning.
Origin — This word is also derived from Latin (we’re seeing a pattern here), from ‘transpicĕre’, which means to look or see through.
How you might use it — How about, “There’s a conspicuous lack of clarity in this social media strategy; I think we need to consult HN! They’re good at making things transpicuous.
HN Weirdness Rating — 7.5/10

2. Foofaraw

We’re comfortably into weirdness territory with this one, and the great thing is, however you think it’s spelled is probably correct. The OED lists no fewer than 25 different variations, so you can really unleash your creativity here.
Definition — ‘Foofaraw’ works as a noun or an adjective, referring to something that is fussy or flashy, or much ado about nothing.
Origin — With multiple origins, ‘foofaraw’ borrows from the French ‘fanfaron’ and the Spanish ‘fanfarrón’ (both meaning braggart (n) or boastful/swaggering (adj)), and had life breathed into it by our US cousins once more.
How you might use it — Lean back in your chair, suck the air through your teeth and assert (asseverate?), “If we managed to cut the foofaraw in this meeting, you never know what might eventuate…we could actually get somewhere!” Note: The mere use of the word ‘foofaraw’ is likely to result in foofaraw.
HN Weirdness Rating — 9/10

1. Footle

Well, the looks I’m getting from the rest of the office suggest I should probably make myself busy elsewhere. So this will be our last weird and wonderful word… for now.
Definition — Does it mean futile perhaps? Or is it more like pootle? Well the answer is yes… to both. ‘Footle’ means to act or talk foolishly; to waste time.
Origin — The origin isn’t clear on this one but it’s very similar to, and possibly derived from, the Scottish/Irish word ‘footer’, which means to busy oneself in an aimless, ineffectual or clumsy manner.
How you might use it — “Why don’t you stop footling around with that blog post and make the tea?” That never happens at HN HQ of course…
HN Weirdness Rating — 10/10

We hope you liked our choice of weird words; why not share some of your favourites?

And if you’d like some help cutting through the foofaraw and making your marketing content more transpicuous, you can always give us a call on 01628 622187.

Abridging quotes – how to do it properly

A great quote can give a piece of writing impact and emotional context, making it more compelling for the reader (as this case study demonstrates). But many people struggle to give you a quote that packs a punch in just a few words. If you don’t want your brochure, case study or presentation to lag, you may want to shorten a wordy customer quote. Sounds straightforward enough, but people get nervous about how to do it properly. So let’s take a look at abridging quotes.

Deleting words: the ellipsis

If you’re removing some words from your quote, simply replace them with an ellipsis (…).
For example:

Jon at HN says, “Agency life is fantastic because it’s so fast-paced and the clients are so varied; you’re always working on something new and exciting.”

Becomes:

Jon at HN says, “Agency life is fantastic… you’re always working on something new and exciting.”

Adding or replacing words: the square brackets

If you need to add words for clarification, you put square brackets around the words you’re adding. They can even replace the words you’re clarifying, like so:

Jon at HN says, “It’s fantastic because it’s so fast-paced and the clients are so varied; you’re always working on something new and exciting.”

Could become:

Jon at HN says, “It [agency life]’s fantastic … you’re always working on something new and exciting.”

Or

Jon at HN says, “[Agency life]’s fantastic … you’re always working on something new and exciting.”

See also: The importance of punctuation

Use with caution
Simple as it may be to abridge quotes from a formatting perspective, it’s important to remember that your abridged quote needs to still carry the same meaning as the full quote. Sometimes including or excluding one word too many can change the meaning of your quote. Revisiting our example above, changing:

Jon at HN says, “Agency life is fantastic but challenging, because it’s so fast-paced and you’re always working on something new.”

To:

Jon at HN says, “Agency life is fantastic … you’re always working on something new.”

Isn’t right – you’ve changed the meaning of the original sentence from a qualified endorsement of agency life to a wholehearted one, somewhat distorting Jon’s views in the process.

Clarifications also need to be treated with caution to preserve the meaning of the sentence. Changing “Agency life is fantastic.” to “[HN] is fantastic” would, sadly, be straying too far semantically to be an acceptable reflection of what Jon said (though working at HN, of course, IS fantastic; the sentence is perfectly true).

Should you bother?

If you’re finding it hard to make a quote fit your purpose, one option is simply to rewrite it – as long as you make sure the person you’re attributing the quote to approves it. It’s common practice in B2B copy to convey the sentiment and meaning of what someone originally said, but using language that is perhaps plainer, or more specific, or more emotional than originally expressed — then get them to approve the new form of words. We generally find that those we talk to are happy to have their sentiments expressed more concisely and clearly, to make their point more effectively.

For more advice on tweaking your language to give it more impact, check out our blog on straight-talking (and discover why Simon Cowell and President Obama are more similar than you might think). Or get in touch and let us see if we can help you convert your lengthy prose into converting content.

Using customers’ language to grow your brand

Should organisations use their customers’ language? Get it right and you will reap the rewards — increased coverage, followers and retweets — get it wrong though, and your legal team could be calling.

One of the UK’s largest retailers, Argos, is a company that understands the importance of solidifying customer relationships through online engagements. Recently, its customer service team replied to a tweet from a potential customer who was complaining about the availability of the PS4 in his local store:

mediumt-to-content-1

To which @ArgosHelpers replied (presumably after consulting their teenage children):

content-to-medium-2

The result? issue dealt with, an extra 1,500 followers (in one day) and a happy customer:

content-to-medium-3

Apart from the baffling language that sent even us running for the Urban Dictionary, Argos showed how the combination of humour, content and medium can be combined to solve customers’ problems, communicate clearly and promote their business to new audiences. By matching the tone of the original tweet, the company generated a positive response from a complaint, without being offensive — a perfect example of peer language adoption.

Even if Argos’s use of slang is too ‘left field’ for your organisation right now, there are still lessons to be learnt here. The importance of knowing and applying your customers’ preferred language, whether they spend their day thinking about cloud architecture or PS4 availability, is something every organisation needs to acknowledge — y’get me?

Word origins: when Latin just won’t do

Having battled with English, German, French and Latin at school, learning Spanish as an adult was an absolute joy. It’s one of the Romanic languages, with strong Latin roots but also a heavy Arabic influence. It’s incredibly logical and almost 100% phonetic which means that once you learn the rules, you can get reading straight away.

English is described as Germanic but it’s fair to say it’s a melting pot of many other languages due to successive invasions from abroad and our more recent imperialistic history. Although this makes English more irregular and more challenging to learn, it also makes it a language rich with meaning and nuance. Half the fun of writing can be choosing which word out of ten possibilities is most appropriate for your audience. The tricky part is to rein in your creative tendencies when plain speaking (or typing) is required. And it’s often said that when this is the case, Germanic and/or Old English words are most appropriate.

When to rein in your creative tendencies

For example, one expression that often falls foul of the editor’s pen is “prior to” with its origins in the Latin “prae” meaning “before”. And there we have the reason that “prior to” often has to go—the Germanic “before” (vor) is more widely understood and is just one word.

Of course, it all depends on your audience. If you’re writing a white paper, opinion piece or article, “prior to” may be fine. If you’re writing a safety manual, however, it needs to be understood by as many readers as possible. In that case, I would opt for “before” every time.

Sometimes, the Latin word is just too… well… grandiose (Latin, grandis). When was the last time you traversed the road for example? The word “traverse” comes from the French “travers”, which itself comes from the Latin “transversum” meaning to lie across. Interestingly, the word “cross” also came from Latin (crux), but long before the Normans brought “traverse”.

Choosing the best alternatives

As someone who loves the richness of our language I’m certainly not advocating ridding ourselves of those more elaborate words; that would be a tragedy. But when I write for business and consumer audiences, I always ask myself, “Which alternative would be understood and appreciated by the greater number of readers?”

As the Plain English Campaign says, “It’s not about banning new words, killing off long words or promoting completely perfect grammar.” It’s about reaching your audience using language they will understand.

Sprechen Sie français?

There are many fabulous translation agencies out there who’ll do an extremely efficient job of converting your text into a local language. We can put you in touch with one or two if that’s the approach you need to take.

Sometimes, however, you need something more or different.

Gimme more

By more, we mean that a translation isn’t always enough. The text needs to be rewritten in the local language to convey the same subtleties of meaning as the original—and this is not a function of language but of messaging. To illustrate: a good quality proofer would be able to correct ambiguities and inconsistencies in your copy, and may rework whole paragraphs of the original (20–30% is typical) but they’re not able to originate copy with flair; and the same is true of a good translator.

A bilingual writer, on the other hand, can take a brief about the messaging and purpose of the piece to be created and then use the original English text as source to effectively create a new piece of copy that’s fit for purpose.

Vive la différence

By different, it could be that you don’t have and don’t need the copy in English at all—so why spend time and money creating an English version? Our mother-tongue writers work to the same exacting standards as our English-language team. They can interview in the local language to get all the information they need and write persuasive content that will convey your messaging with authority.

Zusammenarbeiten

We work as a team despite the geographic distances; you enjoy a single point of contact for your content development activity while we make sure any style preference or process changes are consistently applied across all languages. This is especially valuable for case study programmes and newswires where a uniformity of style or approach is required.

Language options

Alongside our English writing capabilities we also provide French, German, Spanish and Dutch origination. Get in touch to tell us more about what you need +44 1628 622187.

B2B copywriting: when little is big

Clients sometimes ask why I’ve hyphenated a compound adjective (‘high-performance computing’, ‘value-added tax’, ‘industry-leading SLAs’, etc). While I could no doubt haul out the Economist style guide or the Chicago Manual of Style or some other ‘authority’ on the matter, I don’t think that’s really answering the question.

It’s not about ‘rules’

Here at HN, we’re not really interested in whether something is a ‘rule’ so much as whether it helps readers follow what we’re trying to say. We’re keenly aware that because language is always evolving, today’s ‘rule’ is likely to be no more than a preference tomorrow and an outdated way of doing things by next week. If clarity of meaning is best achieved by adhering to a ‘rule’ of grammar, then we’ll be passionate about that point; not because it’s a ‘rule’ or the ‘right’ way to do it, but because adherence to common practice aids clear communication.

So, when it comes to explaining why I’ve hyphenated a compound adjective, I might cite common guidance across style guides as good evidence for a practice so common that to go against it would be needlessly confusing. But it’s not as if I’ve memorised a bunch of style-guide rules for hyphenation. When I hyphenate, I’m applying an underlying principle about communicating clearly, which is simply this.

It’s about helping the reader to follow what we’re saying

If there’s any chance of the reader stumbling over a sentence containing a compound adjective, even for a fraction of a second, then I’ll hyphenate it. The hyphen simply ‘chunks’ words to help the meaning come through clearly.

An example

Imagine reading a sentence that starts: ‘We give you high performance.’

It’s a perfectly normal, good sentence where the object of the sentence is a standard construction of [adjective noun]. As you read it, you take in the thought (we give you high performance) and, because it’s a well-formed, perfectly complete sentence fragment, you might well expect it to be followed by a full stop, or a conjunction (and, because, if, etc), or maybe a comma if ‘performance’ is the first in a list of nouns modified by ‘high’ (eg, ‘we give you high performance, availability and resilience’).

But what if that’s not what you get? What if, without any comma, you get another noun: ‘connection’.

It’s not usual for the direct object of a sentence to be constructed as [adjective noun noun]. So you might stumble a little, just for a second. Maybe you think: ‘is there an ‘and’ missing ie it should be ‘we give you high performance and connection’?

The problem is that there’s nothing to signify in advance – until you’ve already read the extra noun and stumbled over it – that, in this case, the two words ‘high’ and ‘performance’ are not an adjective modifying a noun, but a compound adjective modifying the noun ‘connection’. Hyphenating this kind of compound adjective simply avoids any chance of that stumble; thus: ‘We give you high-performance connection’ (ie, a connection with high performance).

Erring on the side of caution

Wherever I use a hyphen, it’s usually to help readers in a similar way by chunking words that otherwise might be stumbled over. Even if we (or our clients) don’t stumble over them, if there’s a chance that someone completely fresh to it might, I’d tend to err on the side of caution and include the hyphen. If there’s no chance of ambiguity or uncertainty, I leave it out.

How to write a case study for translation

So you have a great case study, it’s been well-received in your region and it makes sense to have it translated for use around the world. How do you know that it will have the same impact in Lisbon as in London?

A great story can be made average, or worse, if not properly tailored to the local market. Readers will perceive that you are remote, out of touch or simply not interested—and business could suffer as a result.

By following some simple steps, you can craft case studies—in fact any customer-facing content—with global appeal.

1. Write with your foreign readership in mind

Don’t avoid local flavour, but do ensure that you write with your foreign readership in mind. For example, ‘the recent floods in Fleet’ implies prior knowledge both of the location and recent news events. Provide context for non-locals by writing ‘recent floods in the UK village of Fleet’ instead.

If you have reason to believe that this approach will jar with local readers, leave out the context for the local audience and provide your translator with an alternative as a separate note, for example: ’the recent floods in Fleet’ should be translated as ‘recent floods in the UK village of Fleet’.

2. Unleash your creativity

When you know that a case study will be translated it can be tempting to write in a very measured way, avoiding complicated words and colloquialisms. But the result can often be bland and uninspiring.

  • Use complex or non-literal language if it enhances your writing, but provide a brief explanation for the translator of what it means so they can use an equivalent local-language phrase or a more generic translation that captures the meaning. Ask them for a back-translation—this way you can make sure the phrase hasn’t been translated verbatim and that your message hasn’t been lost or diluted.
    For example:

    English phrase like chalk and cheese
    Spanish translation como el día y la noche
    Back-translation like the day and the night

  • As with any kind of writing, avoid jargon that hasn’t become part of common parlance or isn’t universally understood by the audience you’re writing for.

3. Choose a good translator

Choosing a good translator is as important as choosing a good writer because, unless you’re fluent in the target language, you must be able to trust them to tell the story on your behalf. Questions you need to ask are:

  • Does this person understand my business?
  • Does this person have local knowledge of the region they will be translating for?
  • Do I need to bring in somebody with localisation skills to deal with subtle differences between, for example, Spanish as it is spoken in Madrid and Spanish as it is spoken in Mexico City?

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Interesting musings on the English language

We are quite a geeky bunch at HN, or should that be nerdy. Working with this team of insatiably curious people is one of the reasons I love my job; we find all sorts of facts interesting and enjoy sharing a new discovery. I must say that most threads pertain to language or technology of one form or another, which is helpful when you spend your days writing about IT. And of course, Google is our friend helping to not just quench a thirst for knowledge by providing answers, but creating a new line of enquiry as you stumble across something interesting while searching for something completely different.

So, in the interests of welcoming our new blog readers to the HN geek community here’s a few esoteric musings from this morning’s raid on the web.

Did you know that there are more words in the English language than any other (probably)? AskOxford explains the challenge of actually counting the number of words because it is hard to define what constitutes a word…is ‘dog’ one word or two, for example, since it can be a noun or a verb. AskOxford suggest that there are at least 250,000 distinct English words. Other web sources claim 500,000-750,000 but this might include technical words and inflections. You may also be curious to know that the average mature English speaker can call on about 50,000 words.

Our language is so rich because although it is of Dutch/German origin, it was heavily influenced by Norman French after 1066 and by Latin, as the language of the church and scholars. We greedily added all this new vocabulary as it came along. And we continue to do so at quite a pace: English is widely used internationally and this encourages new words and derivatives to move into everyday use. Some estimates talk about 20,000 neologisms every year; OED production is around 2,500. At this rate the a Blade Runner like vernacular may be closer than we think.

-ise or -ize?

Contrary to popular belief, spelling words such as maximise with a z isn’t a recent American innovation. The English language has always recognised variant spellings using both –ise and –ize suffixes.

ise or ize

Noah Webster (1758–1843), a teacher in Hartford, Connecticut, believed that the English language suffered from an excess of pedantry which he blamed on the British aristocracy. Even today, debates over English spelling invariably involve discussions about the Greek and Latin roots of the language.

Webster argued that the language should be guided by “the same republican principles as American civil and ecclesiastical constitutions”—in other words, by popular usage. So he set about producing his own dictionary, which went on to become a cornerstone of teaching English in America and was in part responsible for the now-familiar spelling bee. Over the course of more than 300 editions, he made many changes including adopting the ize ending, dropping the u from words like colour, and switching around the e and r in words like centre.

It may come as a surprise to learn that the bastion of the English language, The Oxford English Dictionary, has always favoured –ize, on the basis that the suffix derives from the Greek suffix –izo. In contrast, most other dictionaries reflect the adoption of the –ise ending for words that entered the language via French, which uses -ise.

When to ise or ize

But there are some words that should never be spelt with a Z. These include words which do not derive from the -izo suffix, but from a different root which coincidentally ends in –ise. Examples include vise (revise, advise), cise (exercise, incise) and prise (enterprise, compromise, surprise). Misguided simplification of the rule to universally replace Zs with Ss has also led to mistakes such as analyze which is, well, wrong—although Microsoft Word doesn’t have a problem with it.

Which alternative you choose is unlikely to greatly affect the impact of your message. If your proposition is compelling and well crafted, even the most steadfast pedagogue will focus on what you are saying, not whether you’ve used Ss or Zs—so long as you are consistent.