Paul Little at large

Paul Little is a Herald on Sunday columnist

Paul Little: Purple prose hard to swallow

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Fancy some piquant confectionery? Photo / Thinkstock
Fancy some piquant confectionery? Photo / Thinkstock

The example that sent me over the edge was a simple sign on a takeaway bar offering "freshly crafted takeaways". Had pompous food descriptions really filtered down the food description chain to afflict the humble (actually, the pretentious ) takeaway bar? Around the corner I stumbled on something calling itself a bagelry, which answered my question.

Ostentatious overwriting, once confined to upmarket restaurant menus, has crept into the language used to describe that most basic element of our everyday lives, food.

The reason is almost certainly the desperate need for a point of difference to make your product stand out from all the others. That would also explain the enthusiastic description I saw at a food writer's discovery of "single-origin bean to bar chocolate".

Such tosh used to be endemic to upmarket eateries, but their menus almost invariably shun such folderol today.

No longer will you be offered fennel-fanned tripe shavings lovingly cosseted on a bed of wilted sage that has been hand-harvested to the sound of the kereru's song and rested in a bath of truffle foam.

It's the low-rent joints that resort to this strategy, like schoolchildren using big words they've just discovered, thinking it will make them sound important, not realising it makes them sound just a bit silly.

I asked for examples of this sort of language abuse on Facebook and received a healthy number of replies, for which I thank my collaborators.

Admittedly, my attempt to crowdsource this column wasn't a total success. Some puckish Dadaist posted the entire Monty Python cheese shop sketch, which was vexing if only because, like most white men in their late 50s, I already knew it all off by heart.

"Hand-cut chips" was an early entrant, but the conversation soon digressed into more general examples of egregious marketing speak such as "vintage styling" as a substitute for "second-hand" and "in the digital space" for "online".

Someone had heard a radio ad describing acupuncture as "100 per cent natural" and another friend had been exposed to an ambitious real estate promotion that extolled "a modern solid concrete interruption of a elegant 1920s building".

My friend suggested "interpretation" was the word intended, although "disruption" has been a hot concept in advertising for some time, so "interruption" could have been right on the button.

The same material noted that "The rooftop offers the residents a dynamite $2m roof top facility."

You have to wonder what the facility is. An opera house? Sewage treatment station? Park and ride terminal?

We have time for just one more language gripe -- the prevalence of "but speak".

This is the practice of prefacing a statement by denying exactly what one is about to demonstrate. Shane Jones was a virtuoso of the technique. On the day he left Parliament, for instance, he said, "I don't want to sound too arrogant, but, believe you me, I am a politician that has got other options."

I guess the qualifying "too" showed a certain level of self-awareness, but he really didn't need to worry -- he sounded just arrogant enough.

Equally familiar is "I'm not a racist but ..." which is a signal that the speaker is about to tell you exactly what "the Maoris'" problem is, and "I've got nothing against Asians but ...", which is invariably an introduction to a sermon on why they should be sent back to where they came from.

Other popular versions of but speak include: "I don't want to make life difficult for anybody but", "Don't take this the wrong way but" and "I'd hate to be this person but". But that's a good idea -- don't be that person.

- Herald on Sunday

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