Edmonton and the English Language

The company I work for, Story Engine, has a George Orwell obsession. In particular, an essay he wrote in 1946 called Politics and the English Language. He begins the essay by excerpting some jargon-filled, cliché-ridden English, written by people who think and communicate for a living. That is, people who should know better: politicians, academics, leaders.

George Orwell's press card

Orwell cautions his readers against using dying metaphors, ugly phrases, and pretentious diction. He warns that powerful people often use this sort of language to confuse citizens, though I believe he is overestimating powerful people. I think they use this sort of language because their peers use it, others from the club. Today we leverage best practices and core competencies to seize aspirational management buy-in, empower thought leaders, ensure sustained innovation, and open the kimono for game changers. The words were different, in 1946, but not the tendency.

But the theme of the essay is not that meaningless language is meaningless. Or simply abominable.

England had just been through the Second World War. Orwell was worried. If the language we use is weak and meaningless, we will be weak and meaningless. England will be weak and meaningless.

We think of this often, when we’re working with clients and they move straight to a slogan, a buzzword, an excerpt of a song, a saying they heard somewhere before. All of this is fun. But we politely discourage it. There is a direct relationship between the words you use and the way you think and act. Edmonton is not a client but in our interviews and presentations about the Edmonton Story we tried to be just as rigorous.

River City is wonderful but every city has a water feature, and parkland. Festivals too. And in our hearts we’re all champions. Dirt City is wonderful for hipsters but every city has dirt and if you travel a little you note that every city in the world appears to have the same twelve varieties of hipster. When we started to hear the similarities, the common themes, in what people were saying about Edmonton, we struggled to sum it up.

If you have the courage to make something, Edmonton is your city.

Why not build? Why not create?

Why not Make It Edmonton, if you’re so in love with the word make? Is it not more elegant?

On one level, none of this matters. If we can tell the story in our own ways, and prove it with anecdotes that move us and others, it doesn’t really matter.

Then it does matter. We chose “make” because we thought it worked for the artisanal yo yo string guy, Maclab Enterprises, the festivals, Waiward Steel, Yardstick Software, and your family. We didn’t want it to sound like a lyric or a slogan or a piece of borrowed mythology.

We wanted it to feel like a simple invitation, a call to action, to as many Edmontonians as possible.

If we were asking people to do something, “make” works for small things and large things. It works for artists, entrepreneurs, seniors, bureaucrats, academics, and those who simply self-identify as “working people.” Some things are tangible, like eighteen or nineteen painted and illuminated bridges, or an arena.

But do you build a song?

It works for brilliant initiatives already underway, like the Awesome Edmonton Foundation and NextGen and Startup Edmonton and the Sage Awards. The municipal government could be involved as readily as a business, a junior high school, a group of friends, a university class, or a community league.

Volunteer CJSR DJ Craig Elliott invited Story Engine on to his radio show ’68 Comeback Special to talk about Make Something Edmonton. He thought the isolation of the city inspired a make your own fun culture.

My late grandmother, wary of video games, often implored us to get off our asses and make our own fun. I asked her, once, for an example. How did she make her own fun? Well, she said, her and her friends would set traps and kill magpies. “They’re damn smart birds and hard to catch but we were that much smarter and we caught them. Then we’d kill them and pick out their pretty eyes and glue them into balls. Balls of magpie eyes.”

Long live Bioware.

What are you making?


2 thoughts on “Edmonton and the English Language

  1. I agree fully. The words we use define us whether we like it or not. It becomes the experience of “us”. No less that we become what we eat, we are also what we speak.

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