From Plastic Words: The Tyranny of a Modular Language. Penn State Press, 1995. Translated by Jutta Mason and David Cayley.
Poerksen considers the following as examples of “plastic words”: basic need, care, center, communication, consumpion, contact, decision, development, education, energy, exchange, factor, function, future, growth, identity, information, living standard, management, model, modernization, partner, planning, problem, process, production, progress, project, raw material, relationship, resource, role, service, sexuality, solution, strategy, structure, substance, system, trend, value, welfare, work.
A. Origin and Usage
1. The speaker lacks the power of definition; the words do not acquire meaning or nuance from their contexts.
2. As “context-autonomous” words that do not depend on their connections, they superficially resemble the terms of science, but lack the precisely defined meanings of such terms, and their freedom from associations. The use of the same word inside and outside science leads to the assumption of kinship, and to the words becoming independent norms. In the vernacular, these nephews of science become stereotypes.
3. As a rule they originate in the vernacular, are adopted and reshaped by some brand of science, and then, like returning émigrés, rejoin the vernacular.
4. They have the character of metaphors inasmuch as they link the heterogeneous spheres of science and everyday life. They are distinct from metaphors in that they no longer evoke any image; they do not, like other comparisons, indicate their origin.
5. This makes their capacity to alter and illuminate their objects even more powerful. The less obvious their metaphorical character, the less it is noticed, and the more effectively it works. These words become commonsense, background concepts in our thinking.
6. The words surface in countless contexts. Their application is limited hardly at all by space or time.
7. They squeeze out and replace a wealth of synonyms. Synonyms after all are not words whose meaning is the same but whose meaning is similar, words with as many delicate differences and shadings as there are contexts. Before plastic words one knew which synonym belonged in which factual or social context. Now there is a “jack of all trades,” a word that serves the whole world.
8. They squeeze out and replace the verbum proprium, which precisely “fits” in a given context, with a nonspecific word.
9. They fill silences and replace indirect ways of speaking, exposing delicacy and tact to the action of stereotyped generalities.
10. When we seek to grasp the meaning of the words, through their content rather than their sphere of influence, it comes down to a single characteristic. They manifest the logical law of the inverse proportionality of extension and intention: the broader the application, the smaller the content; the poorer the content, the larger the application. They are words that reduce a gigantic area to a common denominator. They put forward a universal claim, with a reduced and impoverished content.
11. In other words, the object spoken about, the referent, is not easy to grasp; the words are poor in substance, if not altogether without substance.
12. They seem to resemble the concepts of postclassical physics: purely imaginary, meaningless, self-referential, and functioning only as stackable poker chips. Is language being undermined in parallel with the use of these poker chips in the thought structures of mathematics and physics?
D. History as Nature
13. The words lack a historical dimension; they are embedded in no particular time or place. In that sense they are shallow; they are new and they don’t taste of anything.
14. They reinterpret history as nature and transform it into a laboratory.
15. They dispense with questions of good and evil and cause them to disappear.
E. Power of Connotation and Function
16. Connotation dominates, spreading out in expanding waves. In place of the power of denotation, they provide an experience of counterfeit enlightenment.
17. Their connotation is positive; they formulate a property or deliver the illusion of an insight.
18. In their usage the function of the discourse dominates, not its content. These words are more like an instrument of subjugation than like a tool of freedom.
F. General Function
19. By means of their limitless generality they give the impression of filling a gap and of satisfying a need that had not previously existed. In other words, they awaken a need. They reduce all domains to a common denominator and sound an imperative and futuristic note. The words seem to demand that these domains adjust themselves to the words and not vice versa. They draw attention to deficits.
20. Their asocial and ahistorical naturalness reinforces this demand.
21. Their powerful aura of associations demands action.
22. Their many-sided generality brings about consensus.
G. Social and Economic Usefulness
23. Their use distinguishes the speaker from the unremarkable world of the everyday and raises his social prestige; they serve him as rungs on the social ladder.
24. They carry the authority of science into the vernacular: they enforce silence. (In the GDR Marxist-Leninist science was already monumentalized by being the explicit foundation of the state structure. In the Federal Republic the scientific vocabulary pushed itself into a comparable position as an instrument for awakening economic needs.)
25. These words form a bridge to the world of experts. Their content is actually no more than a white spot, but they transmit the “aura” of another world, in which one can obtain information about them. They anchor, in the vernacular, the need for experts. They are pregnant with money. They command resources, and, in the hands of experts, become resources.
26. They can be freely combined, and they are eager to increase themselves through derivation and the creation of compounds. This modular capacity makes them an ideal instrument in the hands of experts interested in the speedy manufacture of models of reality.
H. Time and Place of Dissemination
27. Their scientifically authorized objectivity and universality make the older words of the vernacular appear ideological. A word like “communication” makes alternatives – conversation, discussion, gossip suddenly appear out of date.
28. The words appear as a new type. In recent history such newcomers have evidently been introduced in each epoch. The type in vogue in the 1930s is not the type in vogue in the 1990s.
29. This vocabulary, even if it appears at slightly different times in different places, is international.
I. Connection to Making Oneself Understood without Words
30. The words cannot be made clearer by tone of voice, pantomime, or gesture, and cannot be replaced by these.