Cliché Alert: Not Bullish on ‘Bullish’

As Digiday reported a few weeks ago, George Orwell’s six suggestions for good writing begin with this one: “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”

Orwell’s concern is that clichés traffic in imprecision, and imprecision is a symptom of shoddy thinking. Surely, we have all had an experience of hearing someone speak about “being on the same page” or “thinking out of the box,” making us wonder if the person has anything meaningful to say at all.

“Cliché” is the French word for a metal cast used to produce wood engravings. By the late 19th century, British writers — and presumably speakers — started to use the word to refer to outworn, stereotypical expressions.

Without a doubt, the advertising and media world has done its part to keep this tradition alive or, perhaps, outworn. Some clichés, of course, are perfectly innocuous, but others can be bluster and reflect poorly on the speaker or writer.

I’ve recently come to wonder, what is it about the word “bullish” that people in advertising like so much? Digiday recently reported that NBC Universal executive Peter Naylor is “very bullish” on the prospect of integrating TV with social media. Similarly, Mike Shields wrote that “TV software and data specialist Rovi executives are bullish on mobile to TV connections.” There are more bulls out there. The IAB’s Randall Rothenberg is “bullish on 2012”; Weather’s Sheila Buckley is “bullish on the concept of private exchanges”; and CBSSports.com’s Jeff Gerttula is somehow “very bullish on breaking news.” There are more.

It’s worth asking what this word means. The Oxford English Dictionary offers four possibilities: (1) of or pertaining to a bull; resembling or having the nature of a bull; (2) of or pertaining to papal bulls; (3) having the nature of a ‘bull’ or grotesque blunder; laughably erroneous; (4) tending to or aiming at a rise in the price of stocks or of merchandise.

As tempting as it may be to bring papal bulls to bear on the digital ad industry, it’s clear people are using the last definition. But often in conversation and in writing, people and not the markets are bullish. If you describe yourself as bullish, you are putting the cart before the horse (sorry, couldn’t help): you are describing yourself in terms that should logically be reserved for the market. It is, indeed, wishful thinking. I am that which I describe. It’s like saying, “I am delicious that the dinner will be good.” Who knows, if we internalize what we want, we may get a better result.

This is not to say we need to stop using a term like “bullish.” If we’re expressing clearly what we want to say, we should keep at it. Yet it’s important to be aware of how we are expressing ourselves. Otherwise a whole dog-and-pony show of bluster could upend how we understand each other.

Tom Butler is a professor of English literature at Eastern Kentucky University and moonlights as Digiday’s copy editor and cliché hunter.