Lost for Words
It’s official. The Oxford English Dictionary has just announced that “cakeage” – the act by which some restaurants charge diners for bringing in their own cake – has entered its august annals. Interesting, since new entries are apparently based on how frequently the word is used, which either means that lots of restaurants are now demanding cakeage or lots of people are tweeting their outrage at being thus charged.
I enjoy the way the English language is constantly evolving to reflect the way we lead our lives, or the events and innovations that are shaping them, whatever I may think of what the word depicts. “Omnishambles” was THE word of 2012, “selfie” stole the crown in 2013 and, recently, we have had the delightfully picturesque addition of “manspreading” – the fat person next to you on a plane or train who spreads into your space. Some of these trending words may disappear as quickly as they have come, others will stay around and may even take on nuanced meanings. What is regrettable is when a really meaningful word becomes so fashionable that it is over-used and consequently its meaning is diluted.
At some point about three years ago, it seems that hotel designers all started “storytelling”, their projects had to have a “narrative” and interestingly, given the potential for contradiction with the spirit of telling stories, preferably this narrative had to be “authentic”. Of course, telling, reading and listening to stories is wonderful and caters to a fundamental human need. But, does almost every hotel design really tell a story?
It is the repetitious use of the word “authentic” when really we don’t mean it that seems to me to be a particular failure to interrogate, or just feel, what we as designers and writers about design are aiming to convey. When we talk about an authentic guest experience, it surely suggests an experience which is just like that of the people who live in the location of the hotel. Thankfully, things have moved on since the time when it was assumed that most people wanted to wake up in a hotel bedroom that looked the same the world over and wouldn’t feel safe entering a hotel lobby if it had a local flavour. However, surely the whole point about staying in a hotel is that guests are paying to have an “unreal” experience, served by staff, reinventing themselves just a little in the bar, luxuriating in the spa and generally avoiding the stresses and privations of authenticity in favour of a crafted world. Guests may be charmed by the traditionally-styled architecture of their hotel or the view of the natural world through their bedroom window, the locally-made curios in the lounge or the old photos on the corridor wall but these no more amount to an authentic experience than a stage set – thank goodness!
We are lucky to work in a very special area of design which ultimately is about making people feel good but it is also a sector which is inclined to copy strong original ideas, reiterating the same visual and written language until its meaning is all but lost. I expect a new lexicon will eventually emerge to take over our industry’s brand standard manuals, press releases and presentations. Meanwhile, mental note to self to try to only use the current buzzwords sparingly and honestly.