Service of Words

August 26th, 2010

Categories: Food, Language, Manner of Speech, Service, Words

words

A segment of “Language Matters” inspired me to again focus on words, last covered in “Service of a Typo Squad,” [June 30, 2009]. The radio program addressed how foreign languages influence English. I heard it on WHDD, National Public Radio on August 15. It wasn’t a comedy, yet I giggled at the intro. The host referred to an American CEO, whose name he couldn’t remember, who allegedly complained, “The trouble with the French is that they don’t have a word for entrepreneur.”

digitalcameraThis program came at about the same time that a blogger, with whom I’d been working on behalf of a client, asked me to add some “app previews” to the information he’d asked for.  I thought, “I wonder if he wants to read reviews about the client’s smartphone application?” We have a ton of great reviews. But that’s not what he meant. All he wanted were digital images. Previews=photos?

I mentioned these examples to a friend who reminisced about a prominent speaker who was sharing his advice and counsel about the economy to a business audience. My friend clearly remembered this speaker’s introduction over 20 years ago. Referring to the 1980s, the guru began: “We have to be afraid of the two F’s: Fear and inflation.”

bagelsNext there is the recent New York bagel brouhaha. Based on coverage in The New York Post, the story was different from the one I heard in a typical New York City conversation with a stranger. Her angle is telling in that it both focuses on our topic and illustrates how news can be interpreted and spread. It suggests a child’s game of “telephone,” where a simple statement starts as “John ate an apple,” and after it’s whispered from one child to the next ends up: “Apple pie for dessert.”

The stranger and I were passing a huge boarded-up window of a national chain sandwich shop that was open for business, on Third Avenue and 44th Street, and she said, “I wonder if that was caused by an angry customer–like the one at Starbucks?” I asked her for the Starbucks story and she said that a woman had a tantrum because the barista asked her if she wanted butter or cheese WITH her bagel rather than ON her bagel.

According to The New York Post, in “Grammar Stickler: Starbucks Booted Me,” in a very brief piece reported on by three people–John Doyle, Rebecca Rosenberg and Annie Karni–an English professor in her 60s was ejected from the coffee shop franchise by the police for becoming enraged when she wouldn’t declare that she wanted nothing on her toasted bagel when the counterperson insisted that she respond to whether she wanted butter or cheese on it.

Some excerpts from the article:

“‘I just wanted a multigrain bagel,’ [Lynne] Rosenthal told The Post. ‘I refused to say ‘without butter or cheese.’ When you go to Burger King, you don’t have to list the six things you don’t want.'”

“Linguistically, it’s stupid, and I’m a stickler for correct English.”

“I yelled, ‘I want my multigrain bagel!’ ” Rosenthal said. “The barista said, ‘You’re not going to get anything unless you say butter or cheese!’ ”

While this particular post is about words, not service, this example simultaneously taps a “poor service” nerve.

pressagentAnd last, here’s the lead to a press release I just received trying to sell my business something, but I couldn’t tell you what. I don’t bash brands on this blog, so I’ve used _____ where a brand appears in the text. Oh, and this isn’t from a company I’m familiar with, such as Baldwin or Steinway, where I’d know that the service has something to do with pianos.

The lead: “In an effort to help companies around the globe increase operational efficiencies while enhancing the way they communicate with customers,  ______ and _______a leading provider of business communication solutions for document presentment [sic] and personalized customer communications, have agreed to offer _____ leading docu ment [sic] automation solution as a solution extension from ___. Available today, ___ is reselling _____’s solution under the name ‘the ___ Document Presentment application By ________.'”

Have you any amusing, ironic or interesting word stories to share?

 irony1

9 Responses to “Service of Words”

  1. David Reich Said:

    Yes, so many of us, and so many businesses too, play loose and free with words, sometimes totally changing their meaning. Look at Starbucks, where Small doesn’t really mean small. It means next-to-small. What’s the word they use for the smallest size cup –vente, is it?

    Speaking of coffee, the same order can have different meanings depending where you live. In many NYC delis, a regular coffee means coffee with milk & sugar. In other places, it simply means a non-decaf coffee — sometimes with or without milk…again, depending where you live.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:

    David,

    Your reference to regular coffee made me remember how my Dad, for whom English was a second language, would go nuts when asked, in NYC, “regular coffee?” and he’d say, “Yes please,” expecting black and getting a bonus milk and sugar he didn’t want.

    While a clever marketing ploy, getting some people to feel “in” and “with it,” and part of a cool club, the Starbucks language model has always annoyed me, though I can’t quite put my finger on why. I guess trying to get me to learn a different language to satisfy a place that also charges a premium and makes me open the lid to put milk in my Joe is pressing it with me.

  3. Kathleen F Said:

    Dear Jeanne,

    Haven’t responded to your blog in a long time, but felt I had something to contribute. Actually, it’s from Pat E. When she was working on ads for a large company, the ad was promoting men’s shirts. As so often happens, when you work closely on somethng, you don’t catch errors. The ad was in it’s final form and the word “shirt” in the headline was missing its “r”. It was an executive, who hadn’t been working on the ad, who caught the mistake that would have caused many red faces had it run.

    Best,
    Kathleen (and Pat)

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Kathleen and Pat,

    I was never sure if this story was apocryphal and PR humor, or if it really happened. A former boss told me about a PR presentation in front of hundreds at a client’s annual meeting and the letter “L” was missing from public in the PUBLIC RELATIONS slide that introduced his part of a report. Nobody caught it before it went live.

  5. Martin St John Said:

    Jeanne,

    I loved this post! And some of the comments, especially to one about shirts.

    I find how language changes and how quickly it changes fascinating. As a boy, I had grammer dinned into me — I’ll admit not very successfully. But now the English I hear and often see written seems very different from what I was taught. If word usage and punctuation is consistent and uniform throughout a great mass of people, but different from what grammer books dictate to be correct, is it wrong? Or is the “new” just as correct as the “old?”

    Being elderly and generally speaking an English I heard spoken around me in my youth, I find that, like the lady in your bagel story, I, too, am often misunderstood. What is far more disturbing, though, is that increasingly I have little idea what is being said to me by many other supposedly English speakers, especially when the subject of a conversation relates to some aspect of technology — especially computer “speak.”

    Have we come to the point, like in many other countries, such as India, Italy and China, where dialects have evolved into new languages, that to be able to communicate, we need to learn dialects?

    Martin

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Martin,

    The French used to squeal about Franglais. Many people have trouble with changes in language. I think some changes can be fun and others fun to criticize!

    One thing I find is that some people speak English so quickly while swallowing their words that I have to ask them to repeat what they’ve said. It can be embarrassing! Especially if English appears to be the mumbler’s first language! Sometimes you can’t get away with “yes,” and a smile when someone has asked if you want one of a choice of dressings on your salad.

  7. Lucrezia Said:

    Words are powerful tools able to start wars or cause grief, as the shirt story almost did.

    I was the victim of poor and/or malicious editing more than once, one of the worst episodes was when reporting on a local town board member whose last name was “Cronk.” An “o” was substituted for the “n.” Fortunately Cronk wasn’t a crank, and an apologetic notice in the paper and soothing phone call smoothed things over.

    One of my favorite wordsmiths was Winston Churchill who could act with the speed of light when the situation warranted. His enemy, the late Lady Astor, assuming an afterlife, must still be smarting from his retorts.

    A former colleague, who refused to be cowed by an abusive customer, was finally told to “go to hell!” Lowlife’s order was met with a charming smile along with a chilly “see you there!”

    Words should be highly respected and used with care. They are at times fun, at others deadly. Let’s enjoy them and put them to the best use.

  8. Debby Kunen Said:

    From Facebook:

    It’s terrible when people (clients, friends or family) have to be asked. They KNOW they owe, but force you into the awkward position of having to ask them to pay up. Oy.

  9. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Lucrezia,

    You are correct about using words with care but even when you mean to, sometimes they come off the page or even out of a mouth just wrong.

    How many dashed-off emails have caused hurt feelings when a misplaced modifier or something that sounded funny out loud but not in writing, turned sour? Expressions I think are cute may annoy or have a negative history with others, but who knows until it’s too late? Fortunately, there are more words around to soothe.

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