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Tuesday, February 15, 2005

What's all the kerfuffle?

With such plentiful word choices, why settle for the usual lexicon when the alternatives are so delicious? I’m always on the lookout for interesting and new (at least to me) word choices and came across three wonderful examples yesterday that simply rrrrrolll off the tongue.

All three were found in articles in the New York Times. The first is kerfuffle, which simply means disturbance or fuss. I heard it first out of my Aussie friend’s mouth while on a bus ride from Suwon City to Seoul back in November. Peter Lewis of Australian Broadcasting, was regaling us with a joke about a dog on an airplane (you had to be there) and mentioned the kerfuffle it caused. The bus erupted in laughter and I would venture to say the hilarity was due in measure to his word choice (and his dead-on delivery).

Danny saw my notes about the words scribbled on a notepad on my desk last night and started chuckling when he read kerfuffle. “What’s that mean?” he asked. I told him and he’s now adopted that as one of his new favorites. When the boys were arguing about something downstairs, I heard him walking down the steps yelling, “What’s all the kerfuffle?” Stopped the kids, cold.

Then I saw the word canoodle, which means to fondle or pet. I giggled just trying to imagine a bad movie in which an actor tells his lover he’d like to canoodle her. Hah! Taught the boys that one when I told them to canoodle (as in pet, not fondle) the dog.

So many great words are found in other languages. Prime examples are some found in this review by the PD’s Karen Long. The review discusses a book written by Christopher Moore, subtitled "A Language Lover's Guide to the Most Intriguing Words Around the World." Unfortunately, on you can’t see the sidebar with a sampling of words, their pronunciations and their meanings. The trash guys have already been here to pick up my recyclables, so I don’t have the piece in front of me to share. You lexicon lovers may simply have to purchase the book.

In a few hours I’ll be meeting with some journalists from Siberia. I’ve been practicing my Russian greeting (phonetically it sounds like “Dobray Din” or good afternoon) for the occasion. But I stumbled across a great Soviet word in a New York Times piece about a new book called, “On Bullshit” written by a retired Princeton philosophy professor.

The writer explains that this professor’s work began circulating “samizdat” style in the early 1980s. According to Webster’s, the word’s origin dates to 1967 (the year I was born) and it means: “a system in the USSR and countries within its orbit by which government-suppressed literature was clandestinely printed and distributed.” How very KGB…

There’s another word that’s been bandied about of late, particularly on blogs and in op-ed pieces. Bloviate (when describing certain pundits), which means to speak or write verbosely or windedly. It’s awfully close to what some might call a blowhard, which actually means braggart.

Of course as journalists we must always be mindful that our job is to be able to communicate clearly. One of my biggest pet peeves is the use of jargon in the business world. If you’ve ever covered business, small or big, there’s a compulsion among its ranks to throw every bit of jargon your way in the context of an interview. The challenge for the journalist comes in translating the jargon into plain English for the masses.

I literally cheered aloud this morning when reading this piece by Alison Grant in today’s business section of The Plain Dealer. Her article is titled, “Optimizing oratorical strategies: (Using plain English in the business world).” Clever headline.

Anyway, Grant writes that the business world is filled with pouffy, opaque language and “stupefying clichés.” The good news is that there’s a counter movement of businesses taking aim at the jargon offenders by developing techniques and software aimed at identifying and suggesting alternatives for such language. And for good reason — it’s good business.

“An analysis of communications from Dow Jones companies found that straight-talking companies performed better than ones using vague, unclear language,” Grant writes.

And if you’re one of those business folks who prefers “utilizing (that’s another of those words found in my 'never use' list) buzzwords” just think about what jargon-speak did to Enron — and its investors.

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