I caught this discussion on a new satirical news show on HBO when the presenter exclaimed, “How did they even come up with that list? Was it just word association… ?” Even for native English speakers, some of the phrases were so obscure that I had to clarify their exact meaning. By the end of my research, it seemed to me the true meaning of these banned phrases was so utterly damning that it would have been easier for GM to fix their mechanical problems rather than hide behind their PR department’s language games.
In 2014 US car manufacturer General Motors (GM) had to recall over 13 million cars sold in the last 10 years as the machines were found to have defective break lights, ignition switches, and cruise controls. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration fined GM $35 million for breaking auto-safety laws.
Recently leaked internal memos from 2008 prove GM knew about the defects, which caused the deaths of anywhere from 13, as GM claims, to 60, as prosecution lawyers attest.
The state of affairs gets sadder still when leaked materials include an attempted cover-up by GM’s internal PR department, a presentation that banned workers from using specific words to describe the car safety issues. Workers were told, for example, that they could no longer use words like, “good” or “bad,” “failed,” “defect,” and “defective.”
These seem like pretty essential words for communicating that a product no longer works! The reality is that even basic terms carry judgement; they convey opinion and emotional connotation. Rather than having workers say the cars are “defective,” GM told its workers to give as official explanation that the cars simply “do not perform to design.”
GM’s attempt to avoid implying anything negative about an obvious and serious problem is ludicrous – but why it’s scary and why it’s funny lends insight into the power, function, and nuance of language. According to the Wall Street Journal, a total of 69 words were censored internally at GM as they were considered too “judgmental,” and the list makes for an interesting lesson in English language and culture.
Meaning Through Omission
Wittgenstein, a philosopher of language, was the first to point out that meaning is often constructed through omission – that is, through what has not been said.
GM’s failed attempt to control the use of language in the workplace is interesting to language students as it shows how selective substitution of words and phrases can radically change intended meaning, while at the same time, the banned words themselves demonstrate how colorfully one can emphasize meaning.
In describing the deadly seriousness of the defects, many of the words and phrases are rendered amusing through their omissions and references. However, for non-native speakers, finding the humor might require a little explanation.
The forbidden phrases fall into a few major categories…
Unsurprisingly, GM didn’t want workers making reference to other famously defective motor vehicles.
Banned phrase “Corvair-like” is a sarcastic reference to a car from the early 1960’s considered by Time Magazine to be one of the Top 50 Worst Cars of All Time.
“Brakes like an X-car” makes sarcastic reference to a sports car from the 80’s that had “brakes that would make the whole car shudder every time they were applied,” according to Popular Mechanics.
More generally, GM wanted to avoid phrases that touch on disasters or deaths famous in the English-speaking community.
References to catastrophic accidents like those that beset the Titanic cruise liner, Hindenburg airship, and Challenger space shuttle underscore just how epic and fatal the defects were considered to be. A tad more obscure, phrases like “rolling sarcophagus” (which literally means a tomb on wheels) and references to high profile suicides like Kurt Cobain’s show how many felt these cars represented inevitable demise.
The invented phrase “Kevorkian-esque” is especially scathing in English, suggesting that customers are choosing to die when they buy these defective GM cars. The phrase plays on a common literary allusion to Franz Kafka’s writing, which normally describes an extremely frustrating, almost futile situation pertaining to corporate/government bureaucracy. However, in this instance it references euthanasia activist, Jack Kevorkian, dubbed “Doctor Death” by the media because he was a staunch advocate of terminally ill patients’ right to die, convicted of second degree murder for assisting the suicides of over 130 people.
Many of the banned words could be considered “blood curdling” or horrifying, more appropriate for describing a scene from Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones than a car! Just take “impaling,” “maiming,” “mangling,” and “mutilating,” which all seem to describe the state of the Orc army after the Ent treemen come to the rescue. In the same vein, the phrase “widow-maker” – namely a tool by which a married women loses her husband – would be a more suitable name for the sword evil Prince Joffrey uses to execute traitors.
Words such as “disemboweling” and “hobbling” sound ancient even to native English speakers, referring to forms of a medieval torture. Hobbling sounds especially dated. It refers to the practice of stopping an person or animal from walking effectively by tying their legs or chaining them in manacles. Similarly, “powder-keg” is a phrase straight out of the days of gunpowder – when Guy Fawkes planted barrels of it under the Houses of Parliament.
All biblical references were ruled out by GM’s PR department but particular attention was paid to popular religious concepts such as “inferno,” “apocalyptic,” and “cataclysmic,” which call to mind biblical ideas like “Hell,” “Revelations,” and “The End of Days”–all of which basically signify the end of the world. However, the actual meanings of the banned words are more specific.
While many native English speakers take “Apocalypse” to mean “The End of The World,” in biblical terms it translates to a “Great Unveiling” when “Good Triumphs Over Evil.” Meanwhile, the original greek root of “Apocalypse” is dramatic – or, from the theatre – signifying an idea akin to the French word “denouement,” or twist in the story, as you might find at the end of a book or movie.
So, “apocalyptic” invokes an inherently religious idea while by contrast “cataclysm” is an uncommon word that is inherently secular in nature. It’s true meaning is “great upheaval” and does not imply any supernatural intervention. A natural disaster could be fairly described as a cataclysmic event for and by those caught up in it.
Of all the banned words and phrases, the one that might cause a chuckle (aside from ‘rolling sarcophagus’), is “You’re Toast,” a colloquial way of saying that someone is going to be in deep trouble.
You could say that GM’s PR department is “Toast” right now!
When you consider the scope and extremity of the language censored around defective cars, the situation looks increasingly absurd. The language used is so emotive and thought-provoking that one can’t help but wonder whether GM’s PR department should’ve put their efforts to control meaning behind addressing the real problem at hand!
Is there any circumstance under which such a PR strategy succeeds? One cannot help but laugh at such an insane attempt. Appropriately, John Oliver’s new satirical news show, Last Week Tonight, ran a parody ad for General Motors.
Language Lessons Learned
If you’re a non-native English speaker, check the list of the banned words below to see if you understand their true meaning. If there are any you don’t understand, let me know in the comments and I’ll try to explain further.
- big time
- brakes like an “X” car
- powder keg
- rolling sarcophagus (tomb or coffin)
- safety related
- spontaneous combustion
- words or phrases with a biblical connotation
- you’re toast
I’d also love to hear about any experiences you’ve had in your workplace with forbidden words, whether in English or any other language!