GM style guide: Let’s not use “death trap” so much, mm-kay?
posted at 2:31 pm on May 17, 2014 by Ed Morrissey
I have to admit that I’ve always been a word geek. I love playing with words, studying etymology, and using as broad a vocabulary as needed and as possible. Early in my life, I worked as a technical editor for a major defense contractor, and it may have been the most fun I had at my job until I became a professional blogger and writer.
Not everyone shares this passion, and not many more appreciate it. That’s why the word geek in me actually appreciates the effort that General Motors put into training its people to use the right word for the right occasion. For instance, it’s best to use “issue” rather than problem, and almost any word in the dictionary other than “Kevorkianesque”:
A Powerpoint presentation included in the company’s consent agreement with NHTSA unveiled Friday shows the nation’s largest automaker told engineers to avoid terms both absurd and mundane for fear of e-mails leaking to the media or regulators. …
“Kevorkianesque,” apparently a reference to Jack Kevorkian, the doctor who claimed to have helped more than 130 patients commit euthanasia, was one of the presentation’s “judgment words” to be avoided. Others included: “apocalyptic,” “Band-Aid,” “Challenger,” “Cobain,” “Corvair-like,” “death trap,” “decapitating,” “disemboweling,” “genocide,” “grenadelike,” “Hindenberg,” “impaling,” “rolling sacrophagus (tomb or coffin),” “spontaneous combustion,” “Titanic,” “widow-maker” or “words or phrases with biblical connotation.”
While many of these words or phrases are understandably over-the-top, the list also includes relatively plain language, such as “always,” “fail,” “defect,” “defective,” “bad,” “flawed,” “never,” and even “safety” and “safety-related” were included.
The company’s Powerpoint also included a list of phrases that were examples of “comments that do not help identify and solve problems,” including “scary for the customer” and “this is a lawsuit waiting to happen.”
Now, this list is absolutely hilarious … on the first read. But ponder just for a moment about where GM collected this list. One would expect language such as “fail” and “defect” in internal engineering and inspection documents, because nothing built by people will ever be perfect in the aggregate. Terms like “apocalyptic,” “death trap,” decapitating,” and “grenade-like” are another matter in regard to a very expensive consumer product. “Hindenberg” and “Titanic” are even worse. On which GM products were these descriptions applied, anyway, to such an extent that GM had to tell people ixnay on the “idowmaker-way”?
Beyond that, though, GM actually does offer some good writing advice:
“Be factual, not fantastic, in your writing,” the presentation said. “For anything you say or do, ask yourself how you would react if it was reported in a major newspaper or on television.”
Hyperbole almost always ends up backfiring, if you’ll pardon a car pun. The problem with hyperbole is that it never lives up to its claims, and eventually erodes the credibility of the writer. That killer argument ends up spontaneously combusting like the Hindenberg, and the entire article sinks like a Corvair-like Titanic disemboweling itself on a grenade-like iceberg, and no mere Band-Aid will avoid comments that will most certainly identify the problems. (Oh, and never mix metaphors.)
By the way, I remember seeing the Rolling Sarcophaguses open for the Widowmakers at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go in the mid-1980s with their big hit, “Chevrolet Impaler.” It had a beat and you could dance to it …