How dare you tergiversate! | The problem with power words

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Many of the professionals I teach have a perception that their American colleagues and clients have access to vocabulary that is more ‘powerful’ than theirs. One of them recently showed me this book – Power Verbs for Managers and Executives which includes eccentric entries such as tergiversate, the goose hangs high (how is that a verb), and topline (as a verb, really?). All this, mind you, from just one page.

There’s a whole genre of self-help books, usually from the US, ostensibly written to enhance an individual’s ‘lexical prowess’. Power words, however, seem to be a thing. I just googled the term and it seems to be commonly used across sales, marketing, and even blogging. There are glossaries of decontextualised power words prescribed for all sorts of situations.

These books and word lists are designed for proficient users of English and I suspect they’re not of much use to them either. In the hands of a less proficient speaker or writer, a power word has the potential to do some serious damage in a business context because the user is probably not familiar with its register, appropriacy and less critically the collocations it appears in.

Does pragmatics have an explanation for why perceptions of words differ in how they are received by readers and listeners? Do power words have any basis in research? I’m simultaneously irritated and intrigued by the whole idea and it’s something I’m going to be exploring.

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