04/01/2018

Words are powerful. In more ways than you think

BY Julian Gorham

Have you seen the ad campaign for the Daily Telegraph? ‘Words are powerful’, it says, ‘Choose them well.’

Oxford Dictionaries’ 2017 word of the year was ‘Youthquake’. Easy to understand and evocative, it was coined by Vogue editor Diana Vreeland in the 1960s to describe the impact of a young generation on fashion, music and attitudes. However, ‘Youthquake’ was back in frequent use again in 2017, as people tried to capture the tremendous spirit with which 16-25 year olds were finding their political voice.

Eighth on the Oxford Dictionaries’ list was the abstruse ‘Milkshake Duck’ – a phrase being used for phenomena initially perceived as positive that are subsequently revealed to be deeply flawed. Its etymology is equally obscure. It comes from a joke written on Twitter in June 2016 about a duck that drinks milkshakes and is subsequently discovered to be racist.

‘Milkshake Duck’ is now often used to describe ‘hero to zero moments’ on the internet. Remember the video from the US that went viral featuring a small boy’s anti-bullying plea? Initially support came from all over the internet and included some celebrities. But the tone rapidly changed when his family was pictured with a Confederate flag.

Commentators say ‘Milkshake Duck’ is perfect for today’s age. A completely random nonsense phrase that’s being used to describe a rather bleak, dystopian view of society. One that says you never know how the information you put on the internet is going to be used – for you or against you.

Light hearted and cynical, ‘Milkshake Duck’ has instant viral potential and is perfect for a world awash with polarised public opinion. Anyone can become a public figure overnight – but this also means an increased likelihood of discovering that a new favourite has a chequered past.

Words are indeed powerful, as the Telegraph campaign suggests. Whether deliberately coined like ‘Youthquake’ or starting out as nonsense, like ‘Milkshake Duck’, they do more than just convey meaning. Their real power is in summing up the zeitgeist.