What PR pros can learn from the top 10 ‘language moments’ of 2018

What were the words and phrases that changed hearts and minds last year? Here are key ways public figures changed an array of debates with artful—or awkward—usage.

Last year brought us linguistic turning points that not only defined us—in news, in politics and in culture—but in some senses changed the way we think and speak.

“Language moments” can be loosely defined as when words and phrases change the results of a debate or an election. They are the messages that shape brands and define movements. Each December, the maslansky + partners’ team of language strategists scours business news, pop culture, social movements, politics and music to identify the messages that truly defined the year.

This year was especially challenging. We are a nation and a world divided.  It wasn’t all negative though—some moments made us laugh (often in disbelief), others made us think, and a few made us question everything.

Here are the top “language moments” of 2018:

1. The language mystery of the year. One of the great language mysteries of our time had us all wondering, how is it possible to hear the same word completely differently from someone else? While it was fun to debate, the implications are much broader.  Can we hear the same words and take away something entirely different?    Consider what you hear when I say “Border Wall.”  Some hear “security” and “protection” while others might hear “Un-American” and “tragic

2. The language that stumped Congress. When Mark Zuckerberg went before congress to testify about thorny issues related to the election and Facebook privacy, many were all left wondering: Does Congress even understand the internet? Zuckerberg’s quizzical response perfectly represents something much larger: a growing lack of trust in our governing bodies. Congress and government are supposed to fix the problems Americans face as a society, but now many can’t be sure they even understand how businesses operate.

3. The language that defined the immigration debate. Whether you are pro-immigration or not, one word took on a whole new meaning his year: “caravan.”  It was a word that we heard over and over again and one that stayed with us through the year.  If you are pro-border wall, the caravan was a symbol of why the wall was needed.  If you are anti-border wall, the caravan became a symbol of the inhumanity of keeping the refugees out.  Either way, you can be sure that the term “caravan” no longer conjures up the image of a minivan.

4. The language that took the House. Health care was one of the hottest issues for voters heading into the midterms, with the economy and jobs not far behind. The Republicans focused on the economy and immigration while the Democrats zeroed in on health care. Democrats running promised two things in more than 52 percent of their advertising: Coverage for pre-existing conditions and “Medicare For All.”

5. The language that divided the world. President Trump proudly declared himself a nationalist. President Macron warned that we should never confuse patriotism with nationalism. Words over time take on new meanings. For much of the 20th century the term Nationalism was equated with revolutions and racist beliefs, whether it was in Nazi Germany or in the 1960s.  This year, the term is taking on a whole new meaning.  For some it still means a dangerous form of xenophobia, while others are looking at it as a form of real and true patriotism.

6. The language that will stick with us. The Kavanaugh hearings were emotional for many. We heard from Christine Blasey Ford about her vivid memories of the night in question. We heard from Kavanaugh about his love for beer.  We heard from Spartacus, er, Cory Booker.  We heard Lindsay Graham tell Kavanaugh “You’ve got nothing to apologize for.”  The one language moment that is stuck in our brains is Ford’s gut-wrenching account of a traumatic experience. Her portrayal of the event has left a lasting picture in all of our minds—and shows the power of language to tell a story, as hard is it may be to share.

7. The language that could change the course of history. 2018 was the year of the word “indictment.” The list of indictments related to the Mueller probe is long – Papadopoulos, Manafort, Rick Gates, Mike Flynn, Richard Panedo, Michael Cohen, and more. Many asked if the President himself would be indicted. This term was once reserved for episodes of Law & Order, but now most Americans now have a strong opinion on both what the term means.

8. The language that inspired us. This year had several inspiring moments where people found their voices in the wake of tragedy and injustice. Some moments include Emma Gonzalez’ six minutes of silence at the March for Our Lives rally, Serena Williams’ US Open argument that her experience wouldn’t have happened to a man and the Pope apologizing in Dublin.

It’s hard to pick just one. People around the world are taking a stand for what they believe in and using raw, poignant language to do so. On January 1st, one movement took hold: Time’s Up. The moniker of a legal defense fund to help people take a stand against sexual harassment and misconduct, the phrase has been repeated from Hollywood awards shows to main street and will no doubt have a lasting impact on how women will be treated for generations to come.

9. The language that took a risk. Dick’s sporting goods took a stand on guns. Patagonia donated their tax cut to fight climate change. Toms entered the gun control conversation. Walmart, Lyft and Uber worked to increase voter turnout. This was a year where companies took big risks by taking political stands.

Nike’s campaign used some of the most powerful language of the year. While it was polarizing, it was symbolic of a trend you can expect to see on the rise: brands taking a bold and loud stand on cultural hot topics.

10. The language that allowed us to come together.

2018 was a year marked by division and controversy, however there were few moments that brought us together. There were some rallying cries in acceptance speeches after the midterms and beautiful and heartbreaking eulogies by President Bush, Vice President Biden and more that reminded us of a time when we could respectfully disagree.

One moment stood out in particular:

What were your top language moments of the year, PR Daily readers?

Michael Maslansky is the CEO of maslansky + partners. He can be reached at mmaslansky@maslansky.com.

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