Monthly Archives: August 2011

So How Do They Do It?

If I still worked there, I’d have been fired today for asking the CEO why his company is making lots of money in spite of the fact that it doesn’t care much about its clients. The guy and his crew violate just about every rule of good marketing, such as failing to build client relationships, suing clients at every opportunity, spamming them, providing poor service, and the list goes on. Did I mention that whenever they have a marketing manager or director who cares, that person has a short shelf life? And yet, I hear they’re having one of their best financial years ever.

I really do know the answer, of course. This company has a large national sales staff (they call them BDs) that manages to find lots of fresh clients whom they can work with once and then never again worry much about. As long as the pond remains well stocked with prospects, they can pull out fish after fish, take a bite, and throw the rest back. And it won’t matter because by the time the pond’s been over-fished and there’s nothing left, the owners and investors will have made their money and can move on to their next big idea.

So, this is a viable business model, right. If it’ll keep you going long enough for you to meet your financial goals, and if you don’t care about the wake of pissed off clients and disgruntled former employees you leave behind, then who’s to say it’s not a valid approach?

I do. Lots of people do. I’d say it’s a head-on collision with ethical behavior. But, as a cultural relativist, and knowing that there have been societies where it was perfectly acceptable, if not downright mandated, to eat your enemies or sacrifice your daughters to Kong, maybe I shouldn’t rush to judgment.

I’m so confused.


Are You Talking About Drugs or Breakfast Cereal?

I forget just what triggered it – something I saw on TV, or a news article I read. But the thought occurred to me that there are a fair number of words that have come to us from the world of illegal drugs that are now in common use in completely different contexts.

Here are a few examples:

Fix – used to refer to heroin use, but now it’s used for any craving, e.g., “I need my chocolate fix.”

Jones – once referred to heroin addiction, now it’s any addiction, as in “I got a bad jones for you, baby.”

Busted – once referred primarily to drug arrests, now it’s any flavor of being captured or caught, e.g., “My dad busted me for driving the Bentley without permission.”

Hit – a “hit” once meant primarily a drag on a joint or pipe of weed. Now it’s anything, e.g., “Let me have a hit off your ginger ale.”

Narc – used to refer to a narcotics law enforcement officer. Now it’s usually a verb, not a noun, and it simply means “tell on,” as in “He narc’d on me for cutting school.”

Rush – once referred to a certain drug-induced feeling – especially from LSD, like things were rushing at you or past you very quickly, like a strong wind. Now, it’s used for anything exciting and often used in commercials, e.g., “Feel the rush as you step inside your new Toyota.”

I know there are lots more, but these are the ones that came to mind.

Why is this interesting? I think it’s because every group or subculture develops it own argot to some degree. And when that group or subculture starts becoming generally known, some of its special language leaks into general usage. In other words, the culture at large takes what it likes and finds useful, even from a subculture of which it disapproves.

It’s yet another quirky aspect of language that I find fascinating.

Just Change the Name to Perrystan

OK, I know I’m not a political writer. I bitch about unqualified people commenting on complex topics, so I should shut up. But I live in Texas, where we have this governor who wants the state to secede from the union and wants to be President of the United States, too. Question: would he want to be President of The United States of Everything Except Texas? I guess he could hand-pick a president for Texas if he offered enough foreign aid. Maybe W would take the job; he’s not that busy reading all the books in his library.

So I met Rick Perry exactly once. Well, maybe I didn’t exactly meet him. Under duress I attended a fund-raiser for him that was sponsored by my former employer a few years back. At least I didn’t have to write a check! I was in the receiving line as Mr. Perry entered the room with his posse and shook each of our hands in turn.

If he had been, say, Bill Clinton, he would have looked me in the eye, shook my hand. placed his other hand on my shoulder, and asked me how everything was going. But this is no Bill Clinton. Perry stretched out his hand for a shake while looking everywhere else in the room except at me. At first I thought, I get this, he’s hungry. It’s  been a long day and he wants to find the shrimp. If he spots it, I’ll follow him over there, we’ll both put too many shrimp on our plastic plates, and we’ll have a nice chat about education and jobs and where the lottery money goes.

But then I had a revelation. A light shone from above, right through the roof and ceiling, and illuminated Perry’s head in such a way that I could almost see through it. No, it wasn’t God sending Rick a personal God-o-Gram or fixing his hair. The message was for me. Perry wasn’t hungry for shrimp; he was hungry only for big, tasty campaign cash so he could continue to run things in Texas. Whoever in the room could provide the most green would get Rick’s full attention this day – although even that may not be much – and it certainly wasn’t going to be me. Rick could tell that just by the cut of my jacket. So he didn’t even look at me while shaking my hand, and then he moved on.

The word “opportunist” has been spoken by many a political analyst regarding Perry. And they’re right. Perry doesn’t give a damn about policy; he just wants to be crowned King of Perrystan and not have to wear that wig any more. Actually, I do suspect it’s a rug. Let’s start that rumor: Perry’s bald, bald, bald. Now if he’s not he has to prove it on national TV. Maybe on the Letterman Show.

Why Do We Believe This Stuff?

I often think about the power that language has over us. The words in our lexicon shape our thoughts and beliefs, which shape our actions, which shape our world. The fewer words your mind can come up with, the shallower the thoughts it can entertain. But don’t get your hackles up because you think I called Uncle Earl stupid. So what if he’s an idiot. I would never suggest we take away his right to vote because he knows only three phrases: “gimme a beer,” “I’ll have the chili,” and “fuckin’ liberal media.”

That’s not even close to what I wanted to talk about today. I’m interested in something very primal in what shapes our beliefs, the truths we hold be self-evident. And what I think is that people will readily accept as true anything that can be spoken with a catchy rhythm and/or rhyme. In other words, simple poetry.

Let’s look at a few “old sayings,” for example.

“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” Most people don’t even know what this means until they’re at least 30. It doesn’t rhyme, but it does have a precisely repeated rhythm pattern, emphasis on “hand” and “bush.” It ends on an emphatic syllable. It sounds clear and magically true. But is it? Is it better to have one thing than merely the potential of having two? It says, “be happy with what you have. Don’t dream.” But we don’t question its wisdom because it sounds good.

“A stitch in time saves nine.” A pleasant rhyme, a little pause after “time,” and two emphatic syllables at the end. Who wouldn’t believe what this says, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” (no rhyme but solid rhythm and great opposition of “ounce” and “pound” that appeals to the supposed virtue of frugality.

“Hell no, we won’t go.” If it’s the sixties, and you’re in an anti Vietnam war march, you need a catchy slogan to chant as you march. After all, wars have them, why not anti-wars, right? It’s a cadence. Its rhyme and five all-emphasized syllables are powerful and good for shouting. “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” Another rhyming Vietnam era marching chant. You can almost dance to it.

“A penny saved is a penny earned.” It doesn’t rhyme, but it does have repeated meter and repeats “penny,” as well as having the strong syllables at the end of each half of the equation. Aha, and it is an equation isn’t it? It has perfect balance. Does the effort of saving a penny really equate to having earned it? I don’t know. What if you found the penny, put in a drawer and just forgot to spend it? Did you earn it?

Political campaigners know that catchy slogans are at least as much about sound than they are about sense — maybe more. A few famous ones are:

A Chicken in Every Pot. A car in every garage. — 1928 Republican presidential campaign slogan of Herbert Hoover.
All the way with LBJ —1964 U.S. presidential campaign slogan of Lyndon Johnson.
Drill, baby, Drill!
– 2008 US presidential campaign slogan of John McCain, used by his Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin. This phrase was often chanted as a call for America to consume domestic oil reserves. The phrase was originally coined by Michael Steele at the 2008 Republican National Convention.
I like Ike
– 1952 U.S presidential campaign slogan of Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Yes We Can
– Barack Obama, 2008.
Read my lips: no new taxes – George H. W. Bush during the 1988 U.S. presidential election.

George Orwell published his novel 1984 in 1948. The Party, the ruling entity in the world the novel creates, knows that language controls thought, so when they want to make an idea disappear, they simply make the words disappear. And they have a marvelous slogan to justify a never-ending, fabricated war with a different geopolitical entity: “War is Peace.” Aha! A Slogan with a paradox. What could be better? I won’t go into Orwell’s point here at length. He’s making more than one. The main idea, though, is that The Party knows it’s possible to hold two contradictory beliefs at the same time – and believe both. People are that easily manipulated. Put that in a slogan with three one-syllable words, and you’ve got mind control magic.

Advertising is, of course, no stranger to the power of language. One of my favorite little numbers was in an ad campaign by the U.S. Army. “Be All You Can Be.” Nice! It’s got the same existential word front and back, all one-syllable words, “you” right in the middle (ego), and the comprehensiveness of “all.” Who wouldn’t want to be all they can be? It has a nice appeal to low self-esteem, too. I haven’t heard of any medical schools using this slogan.

I’ve spent a lot of time on the what of this issue, but none on the why.  Why do rhyme, cadence, repetition, and other elements of language that one might think were just the clothes ideas are dressed in have such an impact? Is it because the nursery rhymes most small children hear cause certain neural pathways to be created in the brain or cause the release of endorphins, the residual memory of which we somehow retain as adults? Hell, I don’t have a clue. I never got to be all I can be and with luck never will. Sorry, I didn’t mean to cheat you out of an answer. But I promise to spend more time researching this someday.

I just want to say that whenever you hear a phrase that you think makes great sense, ask yourself if it’s because of what it really says or because it “sounds” good.

While not about how sound affects beliefs, read Orwell’s 1984 anyway. If you have already read it, read it again.

And also read about the the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, Which is the basic premise behind what Orwell wrote.

What do you think?