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Is there any cure for the continuing curse of curation?

We are talking more gibberish these days as PR-speak renders clarity a distant dream and travel becomes ever more inscrutable.

Hong Kong, June 2021

Making sense of words

Making sense of words - We're learning a new language as PR-speak takes over

THERE is something about the mangling of the English language, not just by Google Translate and its ilk, but by self-proclaimed guardians of the gerund and slayers of the split infinitive, that instantly sets teeth on edge. Yet, Google Translate, a service that has magically transformed genteel communication into modestly entertaining gibberish with inspired blurbs like “Taiwanese-style hotel persists in the comprehensive but conservative service principle as exquisite as the osmanthus” (this, to describe my favourite Beitou spa pick), is not the key villain.

PR-speak is obsessed with ‘curated’ experiences and ‘state-of-the-art’ stuff, be it televisions or toilets. The assumption is that anything not curated is a shabby pig’s breakfast. A menu curated (not created, imagined, prepared, selected, chosen, picked, or inspired) by master chefs is somehow believed to possess a magical je ne sais quoi that will have dollar-waving hordes lining up at the door. But then museum exhibitions are being curated (the original use of the term) along with Sotheby’s auction pieces, Netflix and Spotify selections and so on.

Vijay Verghese

Vijay Verghese

God knows whether the toothpaste at my grocery store has been curated. I hope it has. I would never trust non-curated bananas or onions ‘selected’ for me in slapdash fashion. It is wearying though. Is there a cure for this epidemic of obfuscation?

God knows whether the toothpaste at my PARKnSHOP has been curated. I hope it has. I would never trust non-curated bananas or onions ‘selected’ for me in slapdash fashion. It is wearying though. Is there a cure for the curse of curation to put an end to this epidemic of obfuscation?

Americanisms, and the obduracy of your PC or Mac when it comes to switching your Microsoft Word default language to English (UK), instead of (US), is a Sisyphean task. And then you get onto e-mail and the same thing happens with squiggly red lines everywhere as computers simply do not understand grammar or English spelling and idiom. Have you ever bothered to check the suggested grammar rescue options offered, sorry, curated, by your machine?

While I go about murdering Cantonese with a thousand cuts (as has been my insouciant practice since 1984 when I arrived on the shores of Hong Kong), CNN spews awkward Americanisms and poor grammar into our ears daily. ‘The vaccine will be de-paused,” is a rank abomination that assaulted my ears recently shortly after watching the mysterious “Phnom Punh” wiggle past on the crawler. Television is a great source of faddish language that gains currency because some news anchor happens to introduce it.

As budding newsmen we were castigated for nonsense like ‘this point in time’ (now), ‘least worst option’ (ugh) and the ugly ‘24/7’ that could be mistaken for a convenience store. Why transportation instead of transport? What on earth is ‘gotten’? How do you get something that is free, ‘for free’? The 'winningest' team? And swift amputations would have been in order for nouns masquerading as verbs. I never went ‘malling’. Fortunately there were no malls when I was growing up.

Television, when it finally arrived in grainy black and white, featured earnest agricultural shows that all looked like they were shot in a blizzard despite the best efforts of the lone person banished to the roof to manipulate the antenna. All the roofs in our neighbourhood had people twirling and pointing these magical rods especially when ‘Abbot and Costello’ came on as families screamed, “More to the left, no stop, okay go back… IDIOT!” These were thankless times and television was not state of the art as yet.

One TV term that has taken off is, “an abundance of caution”. This makes me do a double take each time. What is the difference between caution and an abundance of caution? The government is being cautious. It’s quite clear. Why should anyone need to be abundantly cautious? Used once or twice it is quaint. Used incessantly, any editor worth his salt will have the garden shears out.

Nowadays, nothing ever looks bad. The ‘optics’ are bad, we’re told. I presume any half decent optometrist should be able to fix this condition. The word arrived during Trump’s turbulent tenure and newsmen had a field day with it. I see the world is not at a ’turning point’ either these days – this is too banal. It has reached an ‘inflection’ point. We are all seriously inflected with verbiage. Or maybe we’ve tipped over the tipping point.

A decade ago we had tight-jawed futurologists and think tank pin-stripers telling us we were witnessing a “paradigm shift” when all they meant was “change”. 

In his perceptive and funny book Lost for Words, former BBC presenter and broadcaster John Humphrys defines business-speak as purposely vague because “people who run businesses are held to account by their shareholders and employees so they say as little as possible. Cliché and jargon provide camouflage.” The same is true for politics.

And this has crept into the cerulean gin-blue sun-dappled travel landscape. In the Covid slowdown, soaring PR-speak has expanded unrestrained. You might enjoy a night at a “haven for holistic rejuvenation” with “wellbeing micro-moments” if you’re lucky enough to understand all this. Everything sounds like the Oscars with “free use of the pool and gym” and free bed turndown. Amazing. Is free and unfettered access to the lobby also part of the deal?

A resort in Phuket informs us that it is developing “a holistic suite of world-class integrative health and wellbeing programs” (an astounding claim) while a prominent cruise company offers guests a chance to “enhance” their luxury holiday with “expertly curated land programmes”. There it is again. Would it cost less if there were no experts or curation or enhancement involved?

Here’s some stirring prose from one international group: “As the days become longer and the weather warms, plants grow and flowers bloom, new beginnings of beauty and vitality. In fact, the season was originally known as 'springing time', when plants would spring from the earth.” Well, that’s good to know. At another luxury hotel, rooms offer “highly stylized and spectacularly creative interiors and showcase enduring contemporary design which incorporate subtle reflections…” Which means? Other properties, once again, threaten to “enhance the guest experience”. Was the previous experience not good enough?

With the consolidation of hotels into mega-brands an abyss has developed between owners (who once cared about their clientele and knew them by name) and the customers (who stayed loyal to brands because of their relationship with owners, GMs, and PR staff). Hotels no longer reach out to guests or have public relations departments build useful media relationships. Algorithms do this.

PR is outsourced to global companies that don’t have the foggiest about Arab Street knick-knacks, Sham Shui Po deals, bubble tea or Ouagadougou. While a few such practitioners are exceptionally good, many churn out bog-standard generic gobbledegook that has invaded hotel websites as well. Where once you would find useful information on room size, views, broadband speed, storage space, voltage and plug style, you now get standard cut-and-paste text on “state-of-the-art automated toilets” for a “tech-savvy lifestyle”. What does that even mean?

Thankfully, Instagram divas, once much in vogue despite their fake million-plus followers, bad manners, and preposterous demands, have been sidelined by the pandemic and relegated to hawking fashion accessories. But will hotels and airlines seize the opportunity to focus on their own brands for a change rather than kitty parties conducted by a few chirruping self-proclaimed celebrities? 

Most editors of a certain vintage will agree there have been times when they have been led astray by PR guff. I am guilty of overuse of stock idioms too (…more butlers than you could ‘shake a stick at’) and even the dreaded ‘state of the art’. It is time to fight back. There is no need for ‘strategic PR’. Let’s see a return to good old-fashioned simple English.

Vijay Verghese started out as a reporter for the Times of India, a national daily, in 1979. He moved to Bangkok and thence to Hong Kong in 1984 as editor and publisher of a range of news, business, travel and lifestyle publications including Business Traveller, HOLIDAY Asia, and Asian Business. He launched Dancing Wolf Media in 2002 and runs the online magazines and when not dabbling in avatars, music and virtual guff.

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