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A Bumpy Ride: how language changes…

by Richard Sutton on July 14, 2017

This morning, my wife told me that she’d come across another of the latest, “Johnny-come-lately” online retailers naming today’s sale, “Black Friday”. Well, it is Friday. At least that connects, and maybe they want to associate today’s event with the slavering attention paid the American November event by bargain hungry shoppers. But somehow, I get the impression that the marketing people that came up with today’s event name, don’t have a clue about the real Black Friday, and that made me think for a moment about how language changes over time, and not always for the best reasons.

First, as a long-time owner of a family retail business, I know the story of Black Friday all too well. The name was not originally chosen to name the day after Thanksgiving’s sales events. It was an accounting reference. Back in the day of double column, hand written accounting records, the income side of the equation was written in black ink and the liability/debt side in red. For most department store retailers – those were the only large-scale retail locations – and most specialty retailers, it took until the last week of November before sales had finally made up enough to offset the red column. In the language of the day, you were “In the Black”, when the accounting for the year moved to favor the black side of the records. Black Friday was an inside joke until it was drawn out to name a sales event designed to, hopefully, put the retailer into the black after having spent a stressful year in the red.

Of course, I wouldn’t expect the expert marketeers that grew up during the eighties and nineties with constant encouragement and applause for the tiniest chore completed, to understand the old reference. Or maybe I should cut the Millennials some slack and just say that they decided to appropriate a phrase for their own product marketing, without really considering the full impression across the marketplace. But this is the kind of thing repeated by the thousands every day, that illustrates just how fluid language really is. Since most analytical thinking makes use of language, it too is influenced by many of these revisions in meaning. Today’s concepts often bear little resemblance to yesterday’s ideas to reach the same destination.

Whether it is simply the need to express things faster; or if it really is that the cultural and technological references of the recent past no longer matter, a large portion of each community is side-stepped by the evolving language. If language can be compared to a highway carrying rush-hour traffic, it’s good to remember that many of the folks on the road are finding the ride full of potholes. Now is this an intelligent approach to marketing, or even conversation? Well, chances are if it doesn’t make sense to me, or connect with my own experience, then it doesn’t really matter to me. And equally important, I suppose I don’t really matter to those who are promoting the message. Or telling the story.

Writers, take note. Don’t sabotage your own work by neglecting to speak and understand the language of your target readers. A single poorly chosen cultural reference or anachronistic use of phrasing that does not exist for them and you lose the close connection they might have had with your words. One more thing. Age does matter. Right along with regional culture, time does put us in different slots based upon shared experiences growing up. Neglecting to acknowledge that, you lose one more way to strengthen your story’s impact. While we can’t all be completely fluent in all stages of the life of our mother tongue; we can at least try to be aware of the pressures a language must face over its life, and remain true to which ever version was spoken in the setting we weave our tales around.

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