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Branding, content, moral and other words that no one uses correctly

By Lee CullumJuly 22, 2015

What words are overworked?
What words are overworked? Tacojim/iStock

In the great age of communication, we are living in a world of overworked words. Principal among them is aligned, no longer connoting objects straight in a row, but now everything that needs to be brought under control. Doctors must be aligned with the methods of the hospital, which is to say put on salary and paid less.

For the same reason physicians are referred to as providers — to undermine their prestige and authority, and thus their income. The same could be said of content, when it became a catch-all term for books, articles, television programs and plays. This was meant to assert supremacy of business over creativity.

In the great age of communication, we are living in a world of overworked words

Content is not to be confused, however, with narrative, no longer simply a story but instead the over-arching party line for a candidate, political program, celebrity, product or organization, for profit or not. It is now a necessary aspect of building a brand, which too has seen its meaning broadened to the breaking point. A brand used to be the pretty clear province of companies like Coca-Cola or Proctor & Gamble, which touted Tide, Gillette, Crest and other totemic items designed to gladden the household and enrich an army of mad men.     

Now everything must be branded, from law firms to singers and to Al Gore, who won an award at an advertising festival in Cannes for making of himself the “best brand.” You could say that ISIS has developed a brand with its beheadings in the desert, certainly a gruesome tool for recruiting, not to mention terrorizing the rest of us. The craze for branding declares the commodification and commercialization of all the world.

The most surprising word to rise — or fall — from serious importance to ordinary argument is moral, often applied now to matters that don't adhere, really, to high principles of right and wrong. A month ago a member of the Greek Parliament declared he "would have a moral problem voting" for a deal on offer then from the country's creditors, according to the New York Times, "to unlock bailout funding ... in exchange for tax increases and pension changes." A political problem, no doubt, an economic problem as well, but moral is too big a word for this imbroglio.

Now everything must be branded, from law firms to singers and to Al Gore, who won an award at an advertising festival in Cannes for making of himself the “best brand.”

Then there's The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, a book by Alex Epstein. He points out, unremarkably, that the modern world would crumble without oil and gas, or coal.  But is it indeed a moral mission to keep those industries at full tilt? Or to destroy them prematurely, with no plausible options fully developed? 

Most astonishing and disturbing of all was the strenuous effort made by Michael Morell, former deputy and, for a time, acting director of the CIA and author of The Great War of Our Time, to defend "enhanced interrogations" — torture to some — as moral. Certainly he could argue that extreme circumstances sometimes require extreme measures that do perhaps save lives, but to call those methods moral is a perversion of the word that cannot tidy up the ambiguity with which professionals in his position must live.    

Of course the relentless recourse to random in the case of anything weird ignores its roots in mathematics and probability theory or its definition as "a lack of pattern or predictability in events." Perhaps it's a yearning for predictable patterns that brings sustainability so often to our conversation, intended to mean a way of living that's reliable, capable of lasting. But we keep on going forward, as if there were any choice, judging price points — using two words where one would do — and assessing upside and downside risk. (If things are looking up risk may not apply, but the chance of tumbling down is what risk is.) 

No matter. Whatever happens we can keep on engaging — now more attuned to diplomacy, politics and journalism than a promise of marriage — and reaching out, however desperate that may sound, hoping, always, to avoid a perfect storm.

What words do you think are overworked? Tell us at #LibertyThis