Archive for the ‘Words’ Category

Service of A Perfect Word of the Year: Selfie

Thursday, November 21st, 2013

Oxford English Dictionary

The “Oxford English Dictionary” publishers have it right. They chose “selfie”—a photo you take of yourself to post on social media–as the word of the year.

What a perfect symbol of the “I’m the only important person in the world, look at me” attitude rampant these days.

I heard about the word choice on the day I held open a bank door for a 40-something well-dressed woman who sailed by without a grunt of acknowledgement and moments later, while crossing First Avenue, a bicyclist missed hitting me by the width of a slice of paper. Along with me she also ignored the traffic light and stopped only when a car crossed in front of her.

Selfie in carSpeaking of traffic, it’s no surprise that selfie practitioners are a danger to other drivers, passengers and pedestrians. There seems to be a trend, if not a premium, to post self-portraits shot behind the wheel. What more vivid example of selfishness is there?

My fuse is increasingly short with the takers who keep on asking me for favors, show zero gratitude and don’t even fake support of any of my initiatives. The list is growing–two instances just this week. The sad thing: I love helping others; I don’t like feeling used.

How does such a mindset affect service? What will it take to turn society away from a selfie world? Am I hopelessly out of step and instead of fighting should I join the trend? What about you?

self centered table

Service of Upgrades

Thursday, February 28th, 2013


There’s little doubt what people mean when they refer to downgrades. I have trouble with the word and concept of upgrade which like “green,” “natural” and “organic” is subject to interpretation.

Cooking with nitrogenI love upgrades to business class, but some remind me of haut food. Kevin McKenzie describes fads in “Hiring a Chef for a High End Restaurant” in AllBusiness: “cooking with nitrogen, deconstructing dishes into foams and jellies, and dehydrating foods and sauces in order to create powders, infused salts, and oils.” Change for change’s sake isn’t always practical or welcome.

Chefs infusing food with the latest–and maybe not so greatest–are looking for publicity, much like artists who create outrageous pieces to gain public attention. Similarly most of the upgrades–that really aren’t–are made to do the same and to sell stuff.

I missed the Windows Vista bullet in 2007 for example. Those who fell for it suffered for years.


Walt Mossberg

Walt Mossberg

In his weekly Thursday Wall Street Journal column “All Things D,” Walt Mossberg wrote: “If you’re thinking of upgrading your PC to the new Windows 8, be prepared for hassles and disappointment, especially if the computer is more than a year or two old — even if it technically meets the basic requirements to run the new version.

“I know this, because I’ve spent big chunks of the past week trying to upgrade to Windows 8 two big-name, well-regarded PCs — a 2008 Lenovo laptop and a 2009 Hewlett-Packard touchscreen desktop. The process was painful, and it resulted in lost capabilities, even though both PCs ran Windows 7 quite well and met the minimum requirements for running Windows 8.”

Mossberg, who has been writing a personal technology column for 22 years, goes on to explain that he should have checked the instruction booklets for his two PCs before installing Windows 8 and that he’d counted on Microsoft to warn him of incompatibilities as it had in the past.

He concludes: “The industry really wants you to get Windows 8 via an all-new PC, and most people who adopt it will go that route. But, if you don’t, or can’t, and have even a three-year-old PC, you may want to just stick with the Windows you’ve got.”

SpellcheckOn a far simpler scale, I question some recent so-called upgrades I’ve made. In the stodgy “Outlook Express” I used for years to access my emails the spell-check icon was right there next to bold, underscore and font, one-step, easy to find and use. To access spell-check in Microsoft Outlook considered an upgrade, first click on “Review,” and tucked inside is “spelling and grammar,” along with some other things.

Excessive scrolling, once avoided, seems to be the new style. After four+ years, I had to upgrade the program I use to publish my blog. My IT guru and other behind-the-scenes tech genius collaborators made it happen.

When I moderated a comment from my mobile phone the “approve” icon was the first thing I saw on my small screen. It’s now at the bottom of the comment text, hard to find in micro-mini type and annoying. Further, when I finish working behind the scenes, formatting and illustrating a post on my computer, I can no longer return to the blog itself by clicking an obvious arrow that’s clearly visible. I must exit the program and in mouse type, underneath the sign-in to the work area, is a link to the blog reachable only by scrolling down. In addition, while I’d insert an image in two clicks before, now it takes four. The format revision gave someone a job–the only benefit.

Different? Yes. Improvements? No.

Do you have examples of fabulous or ridiculous upgrades?


Service of Brief is Best

Friday, November 4th, 2011


In a New York Times “Common Sense” column in Business Day, James B. Stewart observed that Paul Volcker wrote the President a three page letter with an approach to curbing banks’ risk taking and “reckless speculation.”

The Volcker Rule took up 10 pages in the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, Stewart reported in “Volcker Rule, Once Simple, Now Boggles.”

paul-volckerThe regulations for public comment were published in mid October. The text: 298 pages with 1,300 questions on 400 topics. Stewart noted: “Wall Street firms have spent countless millions of dollars trying to water down the original Volcker proposal and have succeeded in inserting numerous exemptions. Now they’re claiming it’s too complex to understand and too costly to adopt.”

My first thought was this quote, often attributed to Mark Twain but written to a friend by 17th century philosopher Blaise Pascal: “I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had time to make it shorter” or “Je n’ai fait cette lettre – ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.”

blahblahblah2And then I realized that the example of words on steroids reflected obfuscation, had nothing to do with good, concise writing and everything to do with pulling layers of wool and goodness knows what else over the public’s eyes.

As I envision hundreds of foxes in countless henhouses, I think of another saying from an unknown author: “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” And then I think of the Occupy Wall Street Protestors about whom many complain because they don’t have a clear message. Maybe they have so many messages and so much to complain about they are undecided as to just where to start.

What do you think of the Protestors? What examples can you share of overlong copy with the primary purpose of tripping up, hiding information or confusing readers?


Service of Following Instructions

Thursday, August 4th, 2011


On a recent Sunday, Jon Jarvis, director of the National Park Service, spoke to the C-Span audience of “Washington Journal” about three who were killed by falling into a waterfall at Yosemite National Park. On the program, “State of America’s National Parks,” Jarvis noted that there were barricades and signs indicating the dangers and that the three ignored all warnings, climbed over the barricade, slipped on the wet rocks and plummeted to their deaths.

So I got to think about instructions especially because I live in a city with roads increasingly painted with bus and bike lane lines with giant white lettering that umpteen taxis and commercial vans ignore, a city where millions cross the street wherever they may be when the light turns green, faghedabout crosswalks.

hot-stoveSome young children must touch a stovetop regardless of how many times they are instructed not to put their fingers near the heat. They continue to test rules into adulthood. Surely successful entrepreneurs, scientists, politicians and corporate chiefs share the trait–they must test and question, usually for the good, though sometimes they get burned. A friend’s brilliant brother–full scholarship at MIT in engineering–blew off all the fingers of one hand when setting off fireworks in high school: Experiment gone bad.

reading-instructionsMany ignore instructions that come with appliances and devices and wonder why, when they click the “on” switch, they don’t work. [I’ve always thought that if many of these companies cared about their instructions they’d hire me or someone like me to write them as most are impossible to follow, but now I’m off point.]

follow-instructions2I took the photo [right] in a doctor’s waiting room. I swear I didn’t style the shot by moving the soda bottle and napkin next to the sign: “Please do not eat or drink in our waiting room we appreciate your cooperation.”

And how many times do able-bodied people slip into a handicapped parking space “just for a second,” to run for some milk, a paper or to buy a lotto ticket?

rxHow many follow instructions that come with pharmaceuticals or doctor’s orders about lifestyle and diet?

What about recipes? Do you strictly adhere? I think it matters when baking, though I got away with brown and white sugar mixed because I didn’t have any light brown sugar to make devil’s food cupcakes the other week.

Are you the type that follows instructions? Have you paid the price when you haven’t? Is there something telling about the personality of a person who consistently does or doesn’t?


Service of Surprises

Monday, March 28th, 2011


I’m a control freak but with the exception of surprise parties, I love most of them, which may be why I buy lotto tickets. I just heard that the winner of the $312 million Mega Millions jackpot ticket lives in Albany. Eight people shared the ticket, actually. I had fun dreaming of what a surprise winning a chunk of money like that would be for me and some of the people I know.

I won a drawing for big bucks at Pottery Barn years ago. The amount was enough to buy the most expensive thing at the store or a nice selection of the rest. When the store called me at home on a Saturday morning, I knew it was real-not a friend with a tease–because I hadn’t told a soul that I had dropped my name in a fishbowl on the counter. I also won a big football pool which got the serious enthusiasts furious because it was just luck on my part.

Not all surprises involve money or winning. Here are a few I’ve noticed lately.

parkshotssculpture2**On my walk to work last week I first saw silver and copper-colored life-size sculptures of men sitting on benches, standing or kneeling facing one another or posing alone on 47th Street between First and Second Avenues. There’s no way to tell who the artist is-I’ve looked and asked others who were also snapping pictures. I wonder if parksculpturesmall2the city is paying for these visitors or if the artist is renting the space, using Target’s model of “I’m not telling you who I am.” You may remember the very first Target TV commercials that featured the logo, but never the name, of the then unknown retailer.

**I guess tourists whose cell phones don’t work in the US find the burgeoning phone booths in midtown handy and those whose mobile phone service is sketchy around skyscrapers welcome them as well. They are also handy to display poster adverts. I began to realize that phone booths were back in droves relatively recently. They snuck in or phoneboothssmallI’m distracted as I walk from place to place.  I wonder how long the phones will work.

**There was no looting in Japan after the earthquake and tsunami! I saw a great political cartoon about this and a friend who reads internet news voraciously said that this fact was the talk of the town.

**Brenna Ehrlich reported on the Mashable blog, “OMG, the Oxford English Dictionary Added New Words! We ‘Heart’ It! LOL!.”  What’s officially accepted in our language is often a surprise.

Some people may not like the spontaneity connected with surprises. Do you? I’d love to hear of some new or remarkable ones you’ve observed or benefited from.


Service of Miscommunication

Thursday, March 10th, 2011


We communicate through actions and words and yet I don’t think that some comprehend their impact or the impressions they make when they are misleading, inaccurate or unclear.

A beggar on the sidewalk with a sign on a cardboard box asking for money was puffing a cigarette. He may have picked a butt off the sidewalk or perhaps someone gave him the cigarette. When I give a gift to a friend or relative it comes with no strings, yet I thought: He might have money to buy food if he didn’t smoke. You can argue that $9 or whatever a pack of cigarettes costs won’t buy much, so what the heck, but still. Perception was doing the talking and my wallet stayed shut.

radiowavesThe Saturday before this year’s Oscars an international news source played the same radio segment at least twice: I heard that it sure was going to be cold at the Oscars because a very rare thing happened: It snowed in San Francisco. And here I thought that Hollywood was in LA. Would I cancel a picnic in New York City if I heard an unsavory Boston weather report? Wonder if the person who wrote and/or read this has a map.

There’s an ad on a morning radio show where the owner of the business, an articulate fellow with a pleasant voice, tells you why you should bring your car to his shop for checkups and repairs. I’ve heard it a few times. He gives his phone number-I don’t recognize the area code. But he doesn’t state what town he’s in. I can’t understand why the station’s ad staff doesn’t advise him and let him record his message again. I’ve never heard of his business so doubt it’s a chain.

gastankOn March 4, here was the breaking news report that popped in my email box from a major network: “Dow Tumbles Over 150 Points Amid Rising Oil a day after the markets posted its best one-day rise in three months in the wake of a robust report on jobless claims and falling oil prices.” Hmmm. So what’s going on? Are fuel prices rising or falling? I can tell you what I think is happening if my local gas stations are any proof. And how did that s get into the word market?

The New York Post and LA Times were two of zillions to report this news: “Charlie Sheen to pitch products on Twitter, sets Guinness world record.” In the first place, I can’t imagine recommending to a client that he/she have Charlie Sheen go near their product. But it shows you what I know. According to the LA Times, “Just a day after starting up a Twitter account Tuesday afternoon, Sheen had amassed more than 910,000 followers [sic] the micro-blogging site, landing his user account among the fastest-growing the website has ever had.” I think his followers enjoy watching train wrecks and are not necessarily the folks who will buy Naked Juice smoothie [one of the products he’s promoting with one of his mistresses].

What examples of miscommunication–inadvertent or deliberate–have you observed lately?


Service of Respect of an Artist

Monday, January 10th, 2011


Words and their impact came into sharp focus this weekend after the mass shooting in Arizona. I’d already drafted this post.  Nevertheless, it doesn’t change my opinion in this case.

The agency once had a client who used the J M Byington & Associates, Inc. letterhead and my name as a contact to send out poorly written material. Even if he wrote splendidly this liberty would have infuriated me. That’s my name and my agency and I hadn’t sold either to him.

Together, clients and I massage copy until we are both happy and comfortable with the results. Reporters and editors can change press release copy or use excerpts or be inspired by the subject or an image. We are thrilled when they think enough about an angle, product, service or event to write or speak about it or show it.

But what Alan Gribben, in cahoots with NewSouth Books, did to Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”–changing words without his permission–was different. While legal I think it was wrong.

According to the NewSouth Books website:

“A new edition of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, forthcoming from NewSouth Books in mid‑February, does more than unite the companion boy books in one volume, as the author had intended. It does more even than restore a passage from the Huckleberry Finn manuscript that first appeared in Twain’s Life on the Mississippi and was subsequently cut from the work upon publication.

“In a bold move compassionately advocated by Twain scholar Dr. Alan Gribben and embraced by NewSouth, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn also replaces two hurtful epithets that appear hundreds of times in the texts with less offensive words, this intended to counter the ‘preemptive censorship’ that Dr. Gribben observes has caused these important works of literature to fall off curriculum lists nationwide.”

The most widely reported word substitution was “slave” in place of “nigger.”

I can think of no valid excuse for this edit. Such edits take place between editor and writer with the writer’s approval. Books that are made into movies are another subject altogether and not relevant to what happened here.

kids-bookToys, games, films and videos often feature age recommendations. If so moved to protect children, NewSouth Books should note on the cover an age at which readers would know or could be expected to be taught to understand that the way we speak, write and think changes over time and make clear to youngsters that although not a history book, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was first published in 1883, not 2011.

Instead of hitting the “find” key on a computer to locate every “n” word, Dr. Gibbon might have better spent his time to write a foreword, point out the usage of other words that change over time, and briefly cover how the Civil War and its aftermath may have affected Mark Twain inspiring his approach in the book.

What does Dr. Gribben think about certain ugly rap lyrics? Wonder what he would do to Anne Frank’s diary? Words are to an author what paint, watercolor, clay or wood are to an artist. Don’t they deserve the same respect?


Service of Interruption

Monday, December 13th, 2010


At the first PR firm I worked at–a big one–we’d merged with a smaller one and I attended a meeting unlike any before or since. The head of the small agency had asked his account exec to tell us about her client. As she began to speak, he kept interrupting, demanding,  in irritating short barks, the names of media, dates, events and details. She didn’t complete a sentence without another bullet-like barrage of questions. The boss made us nervous and uncomfortable. You can imagine how the AE felt.

Similarly, Steve Martin must have cringed when the powers at the 92nd Street Y in NYC gave the public the upper hand the night he was interviewed by New York Times writer Deborah Solomon. They didn’t let him do what he’s done splendidly throughout his professional life: Engage audiences.

taketemperatureIn “The Art of Interruption,” an opinion piece in the newspaper sometime after the horrible evening, Martin explained: “When I arrived for Monday’s talk, I was informed that it would be telecast on closed-circuit TV across the country. What I wasn’t told was that the viewers were going to be encouraged to send in e-mails during the discussion: what I didn’t expect was that the Y would take the temperature of those e-mailed reactions, and then respond to them by sending a staff member onstage, mid-conversation, with a note that said, ‘Discuss Steve’s career.’ ”

His new book, “An Object of Beauty,” the topic of his discussion with Solomon, an art scholar, is set in the art world. You sign up to hear about a man’s book, movie, play, symphony or TV script, why should you expect to hear [yet again] about his career?

refundWhat’s worse, the Y offered to refund the ticket price to disgruntled audience members who sound like rude people with the attention span of a gnat, incapable of reading the title of a program, folks with the intellectual curiosity of moose and the patience of an infant.

I wouldn’t have returned a penny. My reasons: If I don’t like liver, do I order it and then complain to the restaurant that my dinner didn’t taste good and I want a refund?  If the subject of art bores you, then don’t sign up to hear about a novel that takes place in the art world, by an art collector interviewed by an art scholar. In addition, to give refunds would insult and be disrespectful of my guests, the two people I’d invited to speak.

Martin continued in his opinion piece, “I have been performing a long time, and I can tell when the audience’s attention is straying. I do not need a note. My mind was already churning like a weather front; at that moment, if I could have sung my novel to a Broadway beat I would have.”

How much should the public be allowed to intrude on a program mid-flight? Was this an attempt by the Y to appear hip and in sync with the social networking world? What would you have done? Can you share instances in which interruption has played a role? Can interruptions serve a valuable purpose?


Service of Buzzwords

Monday, September 20th, 2010

buzzwordsMatt Mecs shared some of the buzzwords that drive him crazy these days. He is an excellent writer, uses words precisely and creatively, his copy is never tired, in fact, he invents words and turns of phrases that create buzz. Matt is director of sales at Local Focus Radio and media studies adjunct professor at Metropolitan College of New York where, along with his strenuous job, he teaches four courses this semester.

Here’s Matt’s list of irritating buzzwords:

Hard Stop: When a person has to take that call at 4 pm s/he might say: “I’ve got a hard stop coming up.”

Bandwidth (synonym for attention span): “I don’t have the bandwidth to talk with you right now, maybe next week?”

Verticals (synonym for categories)





lowhangingfruit1Low hanging fruit

With that said

Do you eat your own dog food? Aka Do you drink your own champagne? {use your own products} Matt noted about the newer, champagne version: “Perhaps people are whistling past the recession graveyard with the talk of grander things.”

And mine [along with low hanging fruit]:

Drilling down

next-levelNext Level: “This initiative will take our marketing efforts to the next level.”

Unique {when it’s not}

Needless to say {then don’t}


Paradigm shift

Low fat

Like every few words {especially if the speaker is over 13}

Matt and I are also allergic to trite, greeting card expressions, especially when said with a straight face, but these overlap this topic. I should cover them in another post.

hipBuzzwords and trite expressions exist for the same reason: They make people feel good as well as cool, hip, connected, with-it and they are easy to use and remember.

Please tell us if any of these buzzwords annoy you and share any that we haven’t listed that have worn thin or never worked in your opinion.


Service of News that Makes Kerfuffles

Friday, September 10th, 2010


The strangest things make it to the top of the news pile and even though I’ve been related to this business most of my life, I’ll never understand why some big news lands on page 12 or on the cutting room floor and how insignificant tidbits stagnate in headlines and on the tips of talk show host lips for days and weeks.

I’m thinking of the Quran-burning Reverend Terry Jones. [Quran is the new spelling of Koran, I’ve read.] How did he get heard to begin with? Slow news period? A fellow like this with few credentials and an insignificant following who is up to no good would hardly get the ear of the editor of a weekly in most towns. Had he burned Qurans in Florida on September 11, who would have known-10 of his 50 congregants? Yikes: The Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates is involved. Next, Jones will make millions on a book and no doubt will run for office. He’s so successful in getting out his message and [hateful] brand that he could join a PR/marketing agency.

cameraDoes the photographer Andres Serrano ring any bells? He’s known for “Piss Christ,” an image with a crucifix in a glass container filled with urine. He shot it in 1987, according to Wikipedia. It has appeared in exhibits around the country. Read much about an outrage? Heard any famous people chime in? Neither did I.

Remember Chris Ofili’s “The Holy Virgin Mary,” a painting that was part of the exhibit called “Sensation”? The painting, featuring dung on the Virgin Mary, went unnoticed in London but when it was hung at The Brooklyn Museum from fall 1999 to early 2000, some, such as Mayor Giuliani, protested while others shrugged. 

skyscrapersTo lighten up a bit, I’ll close by reminiscing about a grownup game of telephone with huge impact that closed offices in New York City within a matter of hours. It happened in the 1980s, years before email and cell phones. Staff in skyscrapers at companies large and small told their bosses that they had heard from friends in other companies that their offices were closing early due to a forecast of dangerously high winds described by meteorologists in feverish weather reports. I was one of the many directed to leave work early that day. When I returned to the usually windy street near my then apartment, my hair barely moved–the air was so calm. I remember thinking, “Why can’t I get my client’s messages to move around NYC this fast?”

Two examples of public disrespect of one religion hardly make a ripple. Any ideas why? It’s enough to make one think that only victims who are bullies get any attention around here.

Please share instances of big stories that generated small play or stories–and people–blown up far bigger than they should be by media. Tell us about local news that you’ve seen take off, fueled by unwarranted panic.


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