In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell identified
… a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. Examples are: Ring the changes on, take up the cudgel for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, no axe to grind, grist to the mill, fishing in troubled waters, on the order of the day, Achilles’ heel, swan song, hotbed. Many of these are used without knowledge of their meaning (what is a “rift,” for instance?), and incompatible metaphors are frequently mixed, a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying.
I can’t help feeling that our technology, media and telecoms sector is adding to Orwell’s dump at an alarming rate. Churn, burn rate, media portals, turnkey solutions, sticky content – when did the people who use these terms stop to think about their underlying meanings?
Fortunately there’s a fun game that wasn’t available to the prophet of Newspeak. Let’s call it “tag splitting”.
Here’s how it works:
- Take any two-word term from a popular tagging app (Del.icio.us’ most popular, for example): maybe something like web2.0, opensource, or lifehacks.
- Take a cleaver to the tag and see what you get back: web 2.0, open source, life hacks
- Marvel at the variation and flexibility of our language: at the plethora of projects that really have made it into 2.0, at the many different ways that a thing can be open, and the wealth of stuff that can be hacked.
Dry phrases are instantly rehydrated with fresh meanings that challenge the way we sprinkle them into our conversations.
Now the die-hard IAs among you may worry that all this just makes a bad system worse. It’s hard enough letting users create any tag they like, now tag-splitting makes it even harder to disambiguate. But I say ambiguity (re-ambiguation?) can be fun. What’s the point in having a discrete combinatorial system if you always use the same combinations?