John Key has a problem.
Okay, too vague. John Key has a specific problem I want to talk about today, and it’s not actually his policies, his actions, or his own blessed mangling of the English language on a daily basis.
It’s that John Key clearly gets advice from people who don’t understand sociolinguistics.
Sociolinguistics is the descriptive study of the effect of any and all aspects of society, including cultural norms, expectations, and context, on the way language is used, and the effects of language use on society
In non-encyclopedia speak, sociolinguistics is about how you (presumably) talk differently in the boardroom than you do at the dinner table, or at the pub, or in church. In some societies you may even be using completely different languages in different settings and circumstances, but in relatively-monolingual NZ let’s keep it in terms of “I say “fuck” a lot less when on the phone to my mum”.
Sociolinguistics is about different groups having different ways of speaking to each other and to people outside the group – and how you can’t just parrot the language of a group to gain acceptance in it.
How does this apply to John Key’s shitty marketing advice? Well, for all he’s clearly a smug, duplicitous banker who lies to the people of New Zealand on a regular basis, there’s always those moments when you can spot the coaching behind the key messages.
The two examples I want to use today: ”textses” and “thick as batshit”.
The latter story has only broke this weekend, and a lot of people on Twitter are making eye-rolling “duh, it’s “thick as pigshit, numpty” comments at the PM’s expense. I think they’re missing the point. This isn’t about Key fucking up a basic, well-known phrase. This is about somebody telling him, “say something a little outrageous, like that David Beckham’s thick as pigshit, it’ll get the talkback crowd onside and drive the liberals batshit.”
But John Key isn’t actually a dude who uses words like “thick as pigshit” in his day-to-day conversation. It’s not natural language to him as an older, finance-industry-trained politician. So he’s fucked it up. Instead of sounding like One Of The Common People, a dude you’d have a beer with, he’s revealed that the blunt, cheeky tone is a facade.
It was the same with the “textses” sent by Richard Worth. Even mainstream journos noted how awkwardly Key pronounced the word – and for a guy who mumblefucks the language as often as Key, that’s saying something. What’s my conclusion? He’s not a dude who says “texts”. He probably says “text messages”.
But some utter tit in his message-massaging team probably had the brainwave: ”If he says “text messages” the kids won’t think he’s a right-on rad dude! Say “texts”, John.” (And don’t call them “dirty”, that sounds bad, call them “lurid”, like Worth was just writing a 140-character Mills & Boon.)
And Key, trusting that his senior advisors have a clue, follows their advice. And comes across sounding like … an utter tit.
John Key is never going to be appealing to young adults the way, say, Justin Timberlake is. He’s simply from the wrong generation, in the wrong career, addressing them in the wrong circumstances to sound like a member of their group. (And the exact same would apply to Shearer.) It’s the verbal equivalent of walking in with your cap on backwards trying to throw gang signs.
So if you want to sound completely insincere, do as John Key apparently does: hire media coaches who don’t understand that it’s far better to sound like a genuine, un-hip Dad than a try-hard git. That you sound more honest admitting when you’re not familiar with a particular type of terminology than using it wrong.