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Is English becoming toxic?

Despite a global push for the use of plain English to boost reader understanding and accessibility, recent language trends and buzzwords suggest that English is actually becoming less accessible for the average user.

The desire to be avant-garde, politically correct (i.e. inclusive and inoffensive) or earnestly non-committal (particularly popular in the political arena) is seeing language become more descriptive and yet more obscure at the same time.

Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year for 2018 ‘toxic’ is one example of a word being used less in its literal sense (i.e. poisonous) and more commonly in a metaphorical sense and across different contexts. In 2018, the search terms most frequently associated with toxic were culture, relationships and masculinity.

Other words and phrases from 2018 share the common feature of being used to say something without actually saying it. Welcome to the world of spin and doublespeak.

  • Gaslighting and orbiting – cryptic new uses for these words made the Oxford Dictionaries’ 2018 shortlist for Word of the Year.
  • Disruption – one of Inc’s buzzwords to forget in 2019, this common but not very descriptive term refers to the use of new technology to significantly change how an existing industry operates.
  • Wheelhouse – a new way of saying ‘area of expertise’ which topped the Lake Superior State University’s 2019 Annual List of Banished Words.
  • ‘External career development opportunities’ – a euphemism for firing staff named Worst Word of the Year – was just one of many cringe-worthy 2018 terms highlighted by the Plain English Foundation.

Looking ahead, HRM included ‘flearning’ – the combination of failing and learning – in its list of jargon that could become everyday language (but hopefully won’t).

Direct, simple (i.e. plain) language not only helps create a connection between writer and reader. It also helps people find the information they need, and reduces the likelihood of misinterpretation.

Image credit: Toxic by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0

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