Thursday, March 1, 2007

Enhancement guaranteed

One of the battles I fight with pisspoor writers of English is over the word "enhance". If you read a lot of finance or management -- my current specialities, I'm sad to say -- you come across it a lot. It is much loved by academics of all types but particularly those in these fields.

"Enhance" is a fine word. It has a place in the good writer's toolbox: a rather narrow niche, but one that only it fills. It primarily means "improve or increase in quality", with the implication that where it increases it improves and where it improves it increases. So if one enhances the flavour of a dish, one makes the flavour better, usually by refining its quality (where "refining" implies "improving"). Sadly, it's only a short hop from there to its meaning "improve" or "increase" without any notion of a change in quality; it is used as an undifferentiated synonym of both words. But enhancing the flavour of a dish does not just mean increasing the amount of flavour. It means making the flavour better (or worse: you could enhance the horribleness of the dish too).

The analysts I edit will often talk about "enhanced returns". To me, this says that the returns are of a higher quality; but what they mean is that they are bigger. They are simply "increased returns". (Worse still, there is a sector in investment called "enhanced index", which means that one takes an index and makes investments aimed to be a bit like the index, but better: so an index fund would hold shares that matched an index -- in the same proportion as the index weights them, so that its returns would exactly match the index's; whereas an enhanced index fund would take a view on some of the components of the index, and ditch them from the fund. This is uneditable for me, because it is what this type of investment is universally called.)

Yes, your dictionary will tell you that "enhance" means "augment", and the distinction in usage has just about disappeared. But it's worth doing the Canute over this stuff, because the impoverishment of language leads to the impoverishment of thought. No, really, it does. If you do not have the fine grain to paint your thoughts for others with, they see only your broad strokes. The lesser language, far from being clearer, becomes more interpretable. That's a bad thing for the transmitter of meaning, particularly the academic (or the financial technician who is trying to convey a concept to their reader), because control over meaning is already very hard to attain, given that one must negotiate it with the reader.

What is furthermore rather worrying about this word though is that when I googled it, the ad that Google served me was headlined "Killer Penis in Minutes". Now I can understand other men's worries over the size of their rod (even if I don't share them) but do you really want to slay others with your "weapon"? So I checked out the ad:

"Try This Experiment At Home

Take two Libidus capsules with a glass of warm water. Then sit down, relax and don't think about sex. (To help you keep your mind off sex, which may not be easy, read a newspaper or watch the cartoon channel on TV.)

What will happen next is that... within 10 - 30 minutes, you will have the hardest, biggest erection ever in your entire life!

And... you are powerless to stop it!"

Just don't mistake them for headache tablets before that pay review, hey?


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