No 'joyments' in 'alternative facts': 2017's worst word of the year
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No 'joyments' in 'alternative facts': 2017's worst word of the year

Have you been feeling the joyments this festive season? Did you get advice from the betterers about how to have a Merry Puntmas? If so, you’ve been a victim of the latest corporate crime against the English language: the Frankenword.

These are Frankenstein words, made-up agglomerations designed to draw your attention solely to promote a product.

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Joyments are apparently what you feel when you have a scratchie in your pocket, and the betterers are like Santa’s elves, only they can help you with your finances. Merry Puntmas channels the spirit of Christmas for the noble sake of gambling, possibly draining the very coffers of Christmas itself.

Before you leap in to defend these words as humorous and creative copy competing in a crowded commercial environment, bear in mind they are anything but harmless. They violate fundamental rules in English grammar for the sake of a quick buck. The more we let this happen, the less clear and precise our language will become.

When Donald Trump is wrong, his staff insist he is "instinctively correct".

When Donald Trump is wrong, his staff insist he is "instinctively correct".Credit:AP

Frankenwords were a notable trend in the 2017 list of the worst words and phrases released by the Plain English Foundation. Each year, the foundation collects the worst examples of doublespeak, buzzwords and spin.

Unsurprisingly, corporate spin featured prominently again this year, particularly whenever a company faced public scrutiny.

United Airlines, for example, used security staff to drag a passenger out of his assigned seat and off an overbooked plane. When confronted with video evidence of its bleeding and distressed customer, the airline played down the incident as an overbook situation that led to involuntary deboarding. The chief executive reluctantly apologised for having to reaccommodate the passenger.

In Australia, another airline lost a propeller mid-flight, which the pilot described as an uncommanded engine operation. I’m sure the control tower was relieved to know he didn’t command the propeller to fall off.

United Airlines tried to play down the incident as an 'involuntary deboarding'.

United Airlines tried to play down the incident as an 'involuntary deboarding'.Credit:Facebook

Why is it that airlines seem so perversely opposed to plain English?

Corporate spin took a darker turn after allegations against Harvey Weinstein unleashed some of the worst non-apologies ever uttered in the English language. Australia’s own Don Burke was among the chief offenders when responding to claims of sexual misconduct, admitting that "I might have terrified a few people, or whatever".

The Plain English Foundation's worst sign of 2017.

The Plain English Foundation's worst sign of 2017.

Words still matter, and when they are used to paper over an abuse of power and evade responsibility, it’s more essential than ever that we call them out.

Which brings us to the worst words of the year, and it’s no surprise they were associated with United States President Donald Trump.

Why is it that airlines seem so perversely opposed to plain English?

On his very first day in the job, White House press secretary Sean Spicer lied about the size of the crowd attending the President’s inauguration. When asked to clarify, Trump’s adviser Kellyanne Conway argued Spicer had merely given alternative facts.

Let’s be clear about this: a fact simply cannot have an alternative that is also a fact. In the words of George Orwell, this is a language "designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind".

If you think that’s an exaggeration, the Trump administration followed up by explaining the President wasn’t wrong about something else he’d said, he was instinctively correct. Which means, of course, that even when he’s wrong, he’s right. And day is now night.

Just this week, news emerged of a list of words that health agencies should replace if they want to get funding from the Trump administration. Science-based programs should instead be called science in consideration with community standards and wishes. The State Department now dubs sex education as sexual risk avoidance.

Trump himself reinforced the Orwellian trends of 2017 when he tweeted the tautology of the year. Tautologies are an easy slip-up to make, as Michelle Obama did when she cautioned young people against expressing their first initial thoughts on Twitter.

But a quadruple tautology is rare, and Trump tweeted a classic for the ages when he wrote about recent leaks being "fabricated lies made up by the #FakeNews media".

When the world watches its leaders abuse our language this way, it's no wonder our standards are slipping.

Sure, some cases are humorous and unintentional, such as Pauline Hanson's complaint that the covert recording of One Nation staff was very fixacious.

But poor language also promotes self-importance, such as the blogger who opined about the latest millennial trend of co-living or living as a service. We used to call this renting.

And the worst cases of buzzwords promise a world of technical meaning only to deliver pure wind, like the new electricity arrangements that will apparently follow an optimised non-linear trajectory. I think this means something will go up and down, but in a good way.

Then there was the worst sign of the year, on which the local council warned the public that "no fixing of restraints to the handrail stanchions is permitted without express permission". Like many of the year's worst words, the more you think about this, the less clear it becomes.

The council has our express permission to use plain English instead of giving the appearance of solidity to pure wind.

Dr Neil James is executive director of the Plain English Foundation, which just released its list of the worst words and phrases of 2017.

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