Dead Word Event

The death of our language is a serious-sounding topic to be worrying about on a Saturday afternoon. However, dead words should concern us. They certainly occupy the mind of Don Watson, author of ‘Death Sentence’ and ‘Watson’s Dictionary of Weasel Words’. He ought to know a thing or two about words living and dead, from his days scripting speeches for a past prime minister, writing books and now corresponding via electronic media. The Micrognome grabbed the opportunity afforded by a night away from the Language of Infection coalface, and went to hear about dead language – live, so to speak.

dead words

Don Watson’s carefully crafted cavil is with the unstoppable rise of management speak; that almost nourishment-free consomm√© of jargon words, feel good phrases and mission statements. His argument combined a dry sense of humour with the good oil of common-sense grammar. Much to the gnome’s delight, there was an undercurrent of microbial wisdom.


  • management speak is like a virus
  • consultants are plague rats, at least until they face a capacity management initiative (rat cull?)
  • an epidemic becomes a mass dying event (ABC ad for feature on bird flu).

And so on.

Watson decries the use of empty works that lack a capacity for humour, thought-provocation or engagement. Noting that the old bureaucratic language was stuffy and pompous, the new Management Speak is abstract. It does not use live words to speak to people in familiar terms, and therefore cannot communicate effectively. The new management language lacks grammar and is notable in juxtaposing words that seem like odd bedfellows to those who’ve survived into middle age. How often does a management phrase mean pretty much the same when read backwards?

If, as Don Watson claims, language is the connective tissue of how we think, the state of the body linguistic is in an advanced state of decay without much more than a whimper of protest. If our analogies hadn’t become so confounded, our metaphors lost and our words so hollow, I’d have been tempted to dip into a metaphor minestrone and suggest that we’ve been left at the crease with a bat that’s had a bad dose of the termites.

By Don Watson


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