Zombie words want your brains

  • Zombie
    Rob Zombie? Rod Zombie? Whatever.

You pass them every day, and they slide right off your consciousness.

“Post no bills.”

“No negotiables kept on premises after hours.”

“No standing.”

They’re zombie communications, the relics of a bygone era that continue to stumble through our world somehow, seeking brains.

What the hell is a “bill?” Does that mean you’ll get hauled into court if you start posting $50s to the clapboard around a construction site?

If no “negotiables” are kept on the premises, does that mean stuff you can negotiate (your annual bonus, NHL contracts, etc.) are kept on hand?

If there’s no standing, what happens if I wander around the sign a little bit? Or maybe just sort of shuffle? Can I sit next to it?

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You. Yes, you. STOP THAT DAMN STANDING!

These messages are all based on defunct words. “Bill” in this context means a poster. “Negotiables” are things you can trade for cash. “Standing” means parking or idling your car.

But who says those words in those contexts anymore? Nobody. We’ll tell you not to poster a certain location. We’ll ask for a cheque or a money order, not a negotiable (actually, we’ll ask you to email or Facebook the money – who am I kidding?). And we certainly won’t tell you to stop standing; we’ll tell you to turn of your damn car or park somewhere else.

So why do we keep using these words and phrases? Partly because they sound official and serious, but partly because we’re expected to. Everyone else does it, your boss expects you to do it and the legal department is comfortable with them, and so they persist. Long after we’ve stopped referring to cheques as “negotiables” we still assure would-be bank robbers that none are kept on the premises after close (because that’s one thing we know petty criminals do: keep a good dictionary on hand before each heist.)

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I hope posting this doesn’t get me sued for aiding & abetting criminals….

However, lest we get up on our high horses and ride off into the sunset, think about what kind of zombie words are shuffling around your workplace.

  • Dialogue with our customers.
  • Provide value-added solutions.
  • A win-win scenario.
  • Forward-thinking.
  • May not be used without permission.

Unless you’re sitting around a cafe with hot scones and cappuccinos, you’re probably not “dialoguing” with anyone (and it’s not a real word anyway).

Value-added solutions only make sense in a world with valueless or value-sucking solutions which – although they certainly exist – wouldn’t be used in ad copy anywhere, so why mention their antithesis?

“May not be used without permission” is probably the most egregious of the bunch, because in the digital era everything is used without permission whether the legal department likes it or not. That make this phrase the “no standing” of the 21st century: meaningless and ignored.

These are more than just cliches. They’re tomorrow’s zombie words, walking dead antiques from a bygone era (in this case the ‘90s and early 21st century) that will soon lose currency and call attention to their own obsolescence, in the same way that “post no bills” does for us today.

Their persistence speaks to the need business feels to conform to institutional norms and institutional messaging. As inauthentic and rote as they may be, they’re safe. Nobody’s going to get fired for using them. They may be meaningless and pro-forma (posted for the sake of it, or to satisfy a requirement) but they tick a box on a list of required messaging.

I have a value-added proposition for your BRAAAAAINNNNNSSSSSS!!!!

But just like a zombie careening through a cube farm, they call attention to themselves in the wrong way: they say more about the type of organization that would use them than any information those words actually communicate.

Don’t be a zombie.

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