‘Zero-tasking’ with a Tall Latte: Unmasking the Art of ‘Spin’

Unspun Heroes: Duo Compiles an Appallingly True Dictionary of Spin

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Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf on 'Spinglish'

Spinglish-bookcoverHere’s the unvarnished truth: Corporate executives, politicians and, indeed, almost every group of people with power and authority have become addicted to spin. Instead of communicating clearly, their official words descend into tortured jargon designed not to reveal, but to conceal, and to make the unpleasant (for example, “mass firings”) sound a bit more appealing (“rightsizing”). 

The more syllables and 50-cent words they can throw at a simple concept, the more likely they are to get away with it. But Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf don’t want those powerful obfuscators to have it so easy.  The former National Lampoon staffers have put together a book delving into this sneaky lingo: Spinglish: The Definitive Dictionary of Deliberately Deceptive Language. On the Knowledge@Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111, the two authors talked about their book, how the art of deceptive language has been practiced from original spinner Julius Caesar to modern masters in Washington and on Wall Street, and discussed their favorite examples of spin.   

You can listen to the interview using the player above. An edited transcript of the conversation appears below.

Knowledge@Wharton: Henry, Chris, I truly enjoyed going through this book and looking at some of the terms you came up with.

Christopher Cerf: And Dan, we’re appreciative, and we’re also happy that you said that you “truly” enjoyed it rather than “virtually.”

Knowledge@Wharton: Exactly. This has happened in the last five years or so, where a term will become part of the vernacular of somebody at a higher level, and then it will filter down and become part of the vernacular of the public, which is probably one of the most frustrating things in this process.

Henry Beard: It really is, because we’ve developed a second language, a language in addition to English. Which, of course, is still English, but English itself has a million words and was already made up of two languages: English — that is, old Anglo-Saxon — and Latin, which is where all of the multisyllabic and invasive words come from. I didn’t “kill you,” I “terminated you with extreme prejudice.”

But yes, over the last five years, particularly due to social media and the requirement for people to be available 24 hours a day — particularly politicians, but any kind of spokesperson or spin doctor — they need to have language on their lips all the time. They get in the habit of coming up with things that, if they seem a little off color, they won’t be caught that badly with.

Knowledge@Wharton: I’m guessing that, in part, your comedic backgrounds led you to write this book.

Cerf: I think that’s really true. In fact, Henry and I have always had an interest in language and using it in a satiric way, or pointing out the silly things about it. We did a book on politically correct language — a dictionary — about 10 to 15 years ago, which was a quasi-bestseller, or a semi-bestseller, as people put it. That, of course, means it was not quite a bestseller.

“The first and most dramatic example of spin was uttered by Julius Caesar when he killed at least 1 million people to conquer Gaul, and he called it ‘pacification.’” –Henry Beard

Knowledge@Wharton: Right, exactly.

Cerf: But it sounds so much better. And, in fact, we bill ourselves as semi-bestselling satirists.

Knowledge@Wharton: For people who haven’t checked the book out, this is literally a dictionary.

Cerf: Absolutely.

Knowledge@Wharton: There’s no real narrative to the book, there’s no story.

Cerf: Well, the narrative is only in the definitions. We try to explain where all of these words came from. And we have not only a Spinglish-to-English dictionary to help you understand what business people and politicians are saying, and how they are lying to you, but we also have an English-to-Spinglish section so you can do it yourself and put things over on your friends and colleagues whenever you want to.

Knowledge@Wharton: There is quite a historic element to this type of language.

Beard: Yes, amazingly enough. The first and most dramatic example of spin was uttered by Julius Caesar when he killed at least 1 million people to conquer Gaul, and he called it “pacification.” It’s ironic that 2,000 years later in the Vietnam War, we used exactly the same term to describe equally violent things. So yes, it’s been around a long time.

Knowledge@Wharton: “Spinglish” is, in its way, a language unto its own, but it is incredibly frustrating for the majority of the public to, for example, watch the evening news and hear a politician or corporate CEO using a lot of these terms. For most people, it has to drive them crazy.

Beard: Well, I think it does. And I think one of the reasons Donald Trump has done as well as he has — among many other reasons — is that he is perceived as not being one of the people who use obfuscation and elaborate terms. But fascinatingly enough — and Chris had mentioned the politically correct dictionary that he and I did some years ago — Donald Trump has managed to use the term “political correctness” itself as a form of spin.

The way he uses it, political correctness refers to obeying the law, following the Constitution of the United States, not shooting immigrants at the border, doing anything that isn’t immediately a violent show of American force. So I think you’re quite right about the news. It’s become such a habit. And all of the candidates from both parties, with very few exceptions, find ways to do it. And Chris, we covered how many debates where we came up with new spin terms that they were spinning?

Cerf: Every single one. Henry and I have a little gig on Literary Hub, which is the Atlantic Monthly’s website, where we translate every debate after it’s over. So we’re getting ready for two this week.

Knowledge@Wharton: How many words did you come up with for this book?

Cerf: There are at least a couple of thousand in there, probably a few more.

Beard: And the scary thing is we didn’t make any of them up. We sourced them all and we’ve got footnotes to prove it. And with some of them we ourselves were astonished, gobsmacked, laughed out loud — they are out there, they are being created even as we speak.

Knowledge@Wharton: One of the funny ones is “disposable mucus recovery system.” If you don’t know what that is, it’s Kleenex.

“You would never pay $11 for a box of Kleenex, but a ‘disposable mucus recovery system?’ Cheap at the price.” –Chris Cerf

Cerf: It’s Kleenex or a box of Kleenex, but the reason that was invented — because all of these words were invented to deceive you in one way or another – is that hospitals, a specific hospital actually, used that term so they could charge $11 for it on your hospital bill. And you would never pay $11 for a box of Kleenex, but a ‘disposable mucus recovery system’? Cheap at that price.

Knowledge@Wharton: It’s almost a little bit of a justification, isn’t it?

Cerf: Well, it’s covering it up. It’s reality augmentation, as we like to call it.

Knowledge@Wharton: Based on the jokes going around for years about the military and military spending, I’m guessing they would probably use some of these terms as well?

Beard: Oh, they’re the masters of it. They come up with stuff you can’t believe. Some of it is kind of unpleasant — like when you drop a bomb on the wrong place, like a hospital, that is “incontinent ordinance.”

Cerf: “Collateral damage,” of course, is the famous one for that. But that’s pure Spinglish.

Knowledge@Wharton: Which is amazing, considering there actually was a movie called Collateral Damage.

Cerf: Well everybody knows what it means, which is one of the problems with this kind of language: You have to keep reinventing it because people catch on after a while. A good example of that is “enhanced interrogation techniques,” which is what the Bush administration and the CIA actually called torture, but everybody knows that now. So now the use the abbreviation for it — EITs — and nobody knows what they are, so they can still get away with it.

Knowledge@Wharton: It makes me wonder if that there isn’t somebody in Washington, D.C., that teaches this as a class for incoming congressmen … Spinglish 101.

Beard: I like it.

Knowledge@Wharton: Or maybe, as you go from president to president, there’s a Spinglish diary left by one press secretary to the next press secretary, because those individuals are right up there as well.

Beard: They’re the ones, they’re the ones. That’s a great idea. And, in fact, even though that doesn’t physically exist, as a practical matter, that really is what happens. We also encounter what we call—what has been called “the euphemism treadmill.” A good example is that we used to call terrible economic reverses “crashes” or “panics,” and then in the great one in 1930 they said, “Well, come up with a nice soft term.” Depression. Well, depression we can’t use anymore; you can’t even use recession. The latest ones are, what, Chris? Equity retreats?

Cerf: “Equity retreat,” or “correction” is my favorite.

Knowledge@Wharton: Correction is a big one, yes. Yes.

Cerf: Generally, correction means something good, right? Just because you lost a few thousand dollars today in the market, you know?

Knowledge@Wharton: Correction is a big one, especially with the way Wall Street has been up and down the last couple of years. Everybody has been waiting for that correction to hit.

Cerf: Well, we’ve been doing a bit of correcting the last few weeks.

Knowledge@Wharton: Henry I’ll start with you: What’s your favorite word?

Beard: Well, one of my favorites is — as Chris had pointed out this is both a Spinglish-English and English-Spinglish dictionary, so therefore, it lets you use Spinglish yourself. And the classic example is, if you’re goofing off in the office and the boss comes in and says, “Jones, you’re goofing off.” You say, “No boss, I was zero-tasking.”

“Companies didn’t want to put sugar on their list of ingredients because people don’t think that’s healthy, but ‘evaporated cane juice’ sounds healthy. It is just sugar, of course.” –Chris Cerf

Knowledge@Wharton: OK, that’s a good one. Chris, what about you?

Cerf: Well, I love a lot of these of course. But all of the terms for getting fired kind of amuse me, that CEOs and everyone will use to say that they had to lay off everybody in their company. So first of all, they say they didn’t “lose money,” they had “great negative growth last quarter” and then they talk about “rightsizing their company” — which of course means … firing everybody. But they get a raise because they did something good. My favorite term for fired, by the way, is “offering someone a career-change opportunity.” Doesn’t that sound good? One CEO really did say that.

Knowledge@Wharton: It’s funny, I just opened the book a second ago to page 184, which has a unique term on it that I think everybody in education – both teachers and students — would be very interested in: “unattributed overlap,” which basically means plagiarism.

Beard: That’s right. That’s a nicer way to say that, isn’t it? You don’t want to come right out and say that it was plagiarized.

Knowledge@Wharton: How about “unattributed” or maybe “unintended overlap” because you can’t really say it’s unintended if you overlapped….

Cerf: Well people try to say …

Beard: … plagiarism. Bad citation; duplication of paper that has already been published; failure to use quotation marks around material taken verbatim from another source. Improper dependence; inappropriate copying; unacknowledged repetition. Come on.

Knowledge@Wharton: How about “regeneration harvesting” for all those people in the logging community?

Cerf: Yes, that basically means clear-cutting a forest, cutting down everything in sight. But the industry has made it sound great, as if you’re helping.

Knowledge@Wharton: How long did it take you to pull all of these words together? Because as you said, probably a lot of them are fed to you by politicians on an almost daily basis….

Cerf: And business leaders too.

Knowledge@Wharton: Yes. But for some of these, you probably had to search for them, or maybe they were passed on to you from somebody else.

Cerf: Yes. The Internet of course is a wonderful source of all this. If you just look up “scandal” or “lie” or “cover-up” you find a lot of stuff. And of course, we are very attuned to it now, so we find new ones every day.

We haven’t really talked about marketing, but that’s filled with it. A great term is “evaporated cane juice,” for example. Companies didn’t want to put sugar on their list of ingredients because people don’t think that’s healthy, but evaporated cane juice sounds healthy. It is just sugar, of course.

“My favorite term for fired, by the way, is ‘offering someone a career-change opportunity.’ Doesn’t that sound good? One CEO really did say that.” –Chris Cerf

Knowledge@Wharton: There’s another one actually that I just flipped to: Someone being called a “mixologist” — which actually is just a bartender. I think, if memory serves me, one of the first times I heard that term was in the Tom Cruise movie that he did where he was a bartender — Cocktail.

Cerf: It’s a science, come on.

Knowledge@Wharton: Exactly right. Other than your favorite words, is there one that really epitomizes all of the bad that this type of deceptive language can do?

Cerf: That’s a tough question.

Beard: I don’t know if it’s that bad, but the fact that a funeral director would be an “after death care provider” or a “bereavement care expert” or a “post-health professional” is pretty special.

Knowledge@Wharton: Post-health professional?

Beard: Post-health professional.

Cerf: Right. I also like some of the excuses or some of the cover-up words that politicians use to avoid responsibility. A famous one was during the hostage crisis in Iran, when we had that unsuccessful raid to free them. Carter came on television and said that the raid had been an “incomplete success.” That’s a good term to use in business. If you screw something up, you just say it was an incomplete success. Or if you haven’t started something that you were supposed to finish, you just say you were in the early stages of “finalization.” That works well.

Knowledge@Wharton: When you read some of the words in this book, you probably automatically think of something that has happened in your life, or a friend’s life. “Leak detection and repair specialist.” OK, I’ve had to deal with plumbers before, but I’ve never called one a leak detection and repair specialist.

Cerf: Well, they’re probably insulted that you didn’t.

Cerf: Give them a title like that, and you can pay them twice as much…. That’s part of the reason people inflate their job titles. But, of course, companies inflate your title as a substitute for giving you a raise. They give you a promotion with no raise attached, so somebody who used to be a secretary is now an “administrative assistant.” Or “administrative associate” is even better.

Knowledge@Wharton: Are there any particularly good sports terms that you have included in the book?

Cerf: Oh, there are lots of them, yeah. “Rebuilding phase.” A team in a rebuilding phase is just an awful team that you would never watch if you described it the way you should. Or a “banger” – that’s a good term; it’s a basketball player who can’t do anything but run in to other people and foul them. You’d never hear someone like Michael Jordan called a banger, even if he fouled a bunch of people.

Knowledge@Wharton: For those of us who live here in Philadelphia and are dealing with a miserable professional basketball team, “rebuilding” is a bad term right now.

Cerf: Well, it’s better than saying what the Sixers are really doing.

Knowledge@Wharton: There are also — speaking of sports — in golf, “game improvement clubs.”

“When anybody says ‘with all due respect,’ you know the next thing they say is going to be unprincipled.” –Chris Cerf

Beard: That’s right. As a semi-handicapped golfer myself, that’s a brilliant term used by the club manufacturers. They’re basically the same clubs that would make it possible for the worst possible golfer to sort of hit the ball. They’re a little more expensive, they have funny graphite shafts and very forgiving heads. But just the idea that I put this club in your hand and your game immediately improves, it’s brilliant.

Cerf: It’s great marketing.

Knowledge@Wharton: A variety of these terms have entered the vernacular. One which the retail industry has really capitalized on over the last decade or so is the term “full figured.”

Beard: Oh yeah. That’s almost politically correct. It’s like you’re not fat or obese, you’re Rubenesque, you’re full figured.

Cerf: Big boned.

Beard: Though we’ve found, having done the politically correct dictionary, there is sort of a crossover point. Pure political correctness is when you’re kind of being nice. But usually in spin, it’s not just that you’re being nice; I’m also trying to sell you something, I’m trying to get your vote. So I’ll compliment you, and then try to sell you something under the table.

Knowledge@Wharton: To shift away from the book for a second, I can’t imagine what it was like to be like working at National Lampoon, especially with the two of you around.

Beard: Well it was a challenge. Of course back in those days — our timing was perfect — I think Chris and I did our first collaboration in the spring of 1997. The first issue, I guess was in March or April of 1997, but everything that we had been told that was forbidden turned out not to be. There’s a huge door that says “Do Not Enter,” and we touched it and it fell of its hinges. So we were able to publish things that no one else had. We also had the advantage — it may not sound like an advantage but it really was an advantage — we were so desperate for material, when a monthly magazine seems to have a deadline every twelve days, we would publish anything. So nobody ever said, “Oh no, you can’t do that.” So not only can you do that but, “Can you do it over another five pages?” So we were very lucky.

Knowledge@Wharton: Chris, what was it like for you?

Cerf: I think Henry summed it up. It was wonderful to have a place where not only could you write about things that amused you or annoyed you, but where you could also have some of the most brilliant cartoonists and illustrators in the world at your disposal. One of my favorite articles we did was a complete miracle Monopoly cheating kit. It was a whole bunch of cards and things you could use to cheat at Monopoly. You just slipped them in to the pile of Chance cards and all, but we were actually able to print those cards so you could tear them out of the magazine. It wasn’t just a joke; it was actually done.

Beard: And the purple $10,000 bill.

Cerf: It was a once in a lifetime opportunity to do stuff like that.

Knowledge@Wharton: In this day and age, “data collection” is one phrase that is always out there, and probably is never going to go away.

Beard: That’s right. Data collection, as we all know, means you’re basically just spying on people. But yes, that’s a perfect example. The Internet age is certainly susceptible to this to a degree that maybe nobody could have ever imagined….

Knowledge@Wharton: You’ve put these couple of thousand of words and terms together, but I get the feeling that there may be another edition of this book coming out in another five to 10 years.

Beard: Well, we hope to.

Cerf: It might be a lot sooner than that. At every debate you keep hearing new ones. Carly Fiorina — I wish she was doing better, because she’s particularly good at coming up with them. She had that long description of the issues around pro-life and pro-choice — which are prime Spinglish words in themselves. But she described what Hillary Clinton’s goals were in a way that I don’t know if I can even match. But it had to do with showing that the whole industry was just designed to sell parts. Of course, it turned out that she made up the entire thing that she saw.

Knowledge@Wharton: I find this phrase from the book interesting as well, and probably a lot of politicians have said it. Probably your friends will say it to you as well from time to time. And when you hear it, you probably know it’s the exact opposite: “I hear what you’re saying….”

Knowledge@Wharton: If you hear that, chances are, they didn’t hear what you were saying.

Cerf: Well, they did, and they disagree completely and they’re about to completely blow you out of the water. An even better one is “With all due respect.” When anybody says “with all due respect” you know the next thing that they say is going to be unprincipled. Twitter 

Knowledge@Wharton: Let’s do a couple more, because we only have a minute or two left. “Kinetic military action.”

Cerf: Well, that’s Obama, one of his great contributions. That’s basically war or combat, but it sounds a lot more palatable than saying you’re sending people over to get killed in combat. “Boots on the ground” is another example of that….

Beard: That’s a wonderful example of how these things cross over the border, in this case from the military to journalism. Once these terms get in to the vocabulary, they really just sound like normal words. Oh yeah, it’s just boots on the ground.

Knowledge@Wharton: You have a variety of terms in here that relate to the same concepts. We talked about various phrases for firing or re-structuring. There is one you put in here: “synergy-related headcount restructuring.”

Beard: Oh gosh.

Cerf: Yes, well some company — I forget which company — made that announcement. And the minute you hear anything that sounds like that, you know that the company is in big trouble and they are laying-off half or more of their staff.

Beard: The more syllables, the more losses, without question.

Knowledge@Wharton: You mentioned Starbucks, and obviously the concept of the latte and size of lattes is part of this as well.

Cerf: Oh, sure — a “tall” latte is the smallest one you can get.

Knowledge@Wharton: It doesn’t make any sense.

Beard: No, of course not. It’s not supposed to.

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