Plastic Words

Recommended Read

Poerksen, Uwe. Jutta Mason and David Cayley, trans. Plastic Words. University Park, PA: Penn State UP, 1995. [ISBN-10: 0-271-01476-8]

Plastic words are words so pliable that their use in almost any context tends to sound authoritative and important. However, these words are inhabited more by what the listener wishes to hear than what the speaker wishes to say. You’d think speakers would want to avoid these fickle words, but these are some of the most popular words in recent usage. They are placebo words, costing R&D little if anything to produce when compared with the efforts that are required to craft effective, clear treatments in plain English.

Plastic words, as classified by Poerksen, often begin as regular words with specific meanings, but are then adopted for use as part of a scientific argot. That adoption in itself doesn’t make the words malleable and plastic—rather, it is on the occasion of their release back into the vernacular that these words’ phenomenal plasticity begins to obscure their meanings.

Consider, for instance, words like  information, management, resource, valueenergy, development, system, and function. These are just a few of the words Poerksen identifies as plastic. You’ll notice that almost any random sampling of these strings of nouns tends to form vague ideas or concepts—maybe they’re job titles, maybe they’re mission statements, maybe they’re activities—we’re just not sure. And even once the contextualizing influence of verbs, prepositional phrases, and subjects surround them in reports, essays, political platforms, and the like, we’re still not sure. This is what makes these words plastic, and it’s what makes them beloved of writers who aren’t quite sure what they’re trying to say—not to mention writers who don’t want us to know exactly what they’re not saying.

In Plastic Words Poerksen tracks the rise of these words, provides us with criteria for identifying them, and considers what their popularity says about our society. Although published by an academic press and shelved with “cultural theory” in your local bookseller, this book is, nevertheless, highly readable. Read this book, and I guarantee you’ll be looking at these words—and they’re all around you–in a whole new way.

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