My mistake? On the surface, I misused a word in a presentation. Let me be honest. It was much more than that. On the dark side it was sloppy writing. On the bright side it was overzealous creativity, or a desire to please too much. It was a failure to “kill my darlings,” as Oscar Wilde instructed writers with a penchant for clever phrasing.
In writing about a jewelry line, I described a particular piece as a “sumptuous” sapphire. I could have easily written that the sapphire was “shiny,” “sparkly,” or even “sea blue.” When I originally wrote the copy, I had a fleeting thought: “sumptuous describes the taste of something you’re eating.” Still, I liked it. It rolled around nicely on my tongue and at the time, evoked an idea in my head of a rich, deep blue, perfect sapphire. Why I didn’t write something more along those lines is left to the mystery of my own imperfect illogic, which at times like this, I myself cannot explain.
I ignored my intellect, which according to Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink,” would have been the right thing to do as I opted to go with my gut. I kept “sumptuous sapphires” in the copy, and I turned it into my client.
Later, in a conference call, a salesman (it’s always the sales guy) made fun of my choice of words. “Are we going to eat the sapphire?” he asked. Everyone laughed. Well, everyone except me, though I gave a half-hearted, good-sport chuckle. Inside I was thinking, well, I wasn’t thinking. I was slapping myself against the head.
The error of my ways got me pondering my own writing habits and noticing other writers. I’m not making excuses for my lazy writing, but I’m definitely not alone. That’s bad news. I’ve seen two ads lately for an upcoming show of a popular band. The band’s talent is described as “tasty,” and the music hailed as “yummy.” Can I have a side of fries with that cover song?
Speaking of music, every where I turn these days, someone is being hailed as the “marketing rock star,” or the “finance rock star” or the “scientist rock star,” or, “The rock star of neurology.” We are all sumptuous, tasty, yummy rock stars, even if we are Chief Marketing Officers or Neurologists.
It reminds me of a buzz word from a few years back: “wired.” In the nineties, we always described a person in–the-know as “wired,” or a magazine was “wired,” even if it wasn’t the magazine Wired.
We covet our buzz words. When they are new, they can make our writing fresh and snap to life. Imagine the first time someone wrote that a brilliant executive was a “wired, rock star CEO.” We instantly got an image of a professional at the top of her game and knowledgeable of all new trends and the best and latest business practices. Buzz words and phrases quickly get overused, though, and we rely on them too easily; they make our writing lazy, they turn our words into instant clichés.
Billy Joe Armstrong, and Bono are rock stars. Seth Godin is often called a marketing rock star (and his popularity may have well contributed to this rock star trend). All sorts of people are now considered social media rock stars. The thing is: aren’t rock stars known for their bad behavior? When I think of a rock star, I think of a musician in a famous band that likes to throw TV sets out the window of hotels a la Keith Moon, or a musician/heroin addict with mascara dripping down his/her face and his/her bloated bellies poking out over his/her too-tight leather jeans. None of that may describe Bono, a more cleaned-up version of a rock star, and admittedly, they are out there in droves: famous rockers who are politically active and campaign for presidential candidates and worthy causes—while wearing too-tight leather pants and dark eyeliner. That does not sound like the typical CEO or up-and-coming entrepreneur gracing the cover of Wired.
My point is, why are we calling people who have reached the height of their career a rock star, which, when you think about it kind of has a trampy, bad-boy/diva connotation? Does Seth Godin wear leather pants when he gives key-note speeches at conferences? Does he end each speech breaking his laptop over the podium? No, but he is one hell of a marketing genius (and I don’t mean to single him out, he’s just an obvious choice in the marketing world).
Then again, it must be fun to call successful people rock stars, as everyone is doing it. As for me, I’m going to try harder. I’m going to dig for my words, and not reach for some handy cliché that is being tossed around at the moment. From here on out, fried chicken is tasty. Mashed potatoes are yummy. A Chocolate soufflé is sumptuous. Successful marketers, neurologist, chefs, writers, scientist, fashion designers are what they are: great, brilliant, leading, premier, and ground-breaking. Sure, those words are overused, too, but they don’t make us think of snakeskin boots and screaming fans.
Sapphires are not sumptuous. Guitar licks are not tasty (though the reference is tempting.) Green Day is not yummy; they are killer, but they are not killers. However, The Killers are rock stars.
Like sapphires, words are precious. The ease of instant publishing has made them commodities. Let’s treat them like diamonds, not like CZs.