Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Wednesday 2 August 2023

Lost For Words

Some years ago, a work colleague, having been on some kind of development course, was appointed to ‘cascade’ the content down to the rest of us, including the classroom use of what she called a ‘word salad’. (Unfortunately, it being an utterly unmemorable term for a completely pointless exercise, I had difficulty recalling it afterwards and somehow replaced it in my mental lexicon with ‘shit-jumble’, which has been my private name for the things ever since.)

It was thus something of a surprise that, looking for an example to illustrate the previous post, I found no online reference to ‘word salads’ as an educational tool. Instead, the Oxford Dictionary defines a word salad as ‘a confused or unintelligible mixture of seemingly random words’, while Merriam-Webster goes one better:

‘Word salad began as a term used in psychiatry to describe the nonsensical syntax of the mentally ill. [...] In recent years, however, a slightly different use of the term which means something closer to “nonsense” has emerged. This use of word salad usually reflects a judgment on the logic or intelligence of a person’s language, rather than on the person’s mental state.’

Given that the ‘word salad’ was enthusiastically taken up by the management and the more progressive staff, I’d say that hits it pretty squarely on the head. Despite having negligible educational value, subject-related word salads soon adorned everything from classroom walls to exercise books, while pupils were even being set to create them for homework using off-the-peg software (not exactly a demanding task; with the help of an online thesaurus, the one above took about five minutes from cut-and-paste to publication, including time to try out three different colour schemes).

My online searches eventually bore fruit; it turns out that my colleague (or the leader of her course) had the official name wrong, although she was well up with the Zeitgeist. The ‘word cloud’ has broken free of its original purpose - facilitating the analysis of metadata by visually representing keywords weighted by frequency or significance - and taken the corporate world by storm; its combination of eye-catching display with easily-generated content makes the concept irresistible to a certain type of manager - as well as being very tempting to teachers looking for an instant result with minimal effort.

The word cloud - or word salad - used in this way is a perfect manifestation of style over content, shouting keywords in a nonsensical context on corporate documents or the walls of offices and public buildings everywhere (and even, bizarrely, in a domestic setting). If you set out to design something that screams ‘shallow thinking’ or ‘empty PR gesture’, you couldn’t do much better; to borrow a singularly apt description from Shakespeare, it is ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’.

(Although I still prefer ‘shit-jumble’.)


  1. On reflection, there are lots of other possibilities apart from word cloud or word salad. Word drizzle, word fog and word slurry come to mind without much effort.

    Maybe it could be turned into a party game.

    1. It would certainly have been entertaining activity for the staff training session - give me that over signing a ‘gratitude poncho’ any day!

  2. Our Julia likes word clouds.

    1. I’m sure she has a good alternative name for them too...


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