Overuse has destroyed the original definition of the word
I got an email yesterday that immediately got my attention and made me drop everything to find out more.
It wasn’t important.
You will have noticed that during this seemingly never-ending game of ‘Lockdown Hokey Cokey’, businesses decided the most important thing they could do was tell their customers what steps they were taking to fight the virus — lest they be accused of doing nothing in these unprecedented times. And so the emails began.
It soon became clear that there was nothing most of them could actually do, but that did nothing to relieve the pressure of getting comms out. In a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, the action being taken became the act of informing you. Very meta.
But never mind the detail. Nobody reads email copy apart from the subject lines anyway. And the self-proclamations of the importance of each non-announcement made their importance hard to miss.
It seemed like every company that had at some point served a purpose in my life which had necessitated an opt-in, was suddenly racing toward my inbox.
There were emails from banks, supermarkets, florists and ironing companies.
From brokers of mortgages offering to help me spend and from pension providers reminding me to save.
From taxi firms, telling me not to ride. From the same taxi firms offering me discount codes to encourage me to ride with them if I really had to ride.
One or two emails from porn sites. A similar number from DIY Stores. Some subliminal link there perhaps.
I felt like I was drowning under a sea of anxiety-inducing messages being spat out from my computer screen.
Whether the company was one with whom I have a daily relationship, like my bank, or one I have no memory of (Topps Tiles anyone?) they all carried the same urgency. It was like being surrounded by toddlers all demanding their bottles at the same time.
All clamouring for attention. All screaming at me to read the information they had sent. Because they had something they had to tell me.
But it never, ever was.
From CEO’s desk to junk folder in seconds
Almost all the initial comms came from the ‘desk of the CEO’, as though to demonstrate that they were taking this too seriously to let Marketing handle it.
In reality, they will have been taking it too seriously to let the CEO handle it. So the emails will have been written by Sue in Marketing. There’s always a Sue in Marketing. And Sue loves nothing more than an over-inflated urgent deadline.
Sue’s forte will be using language that pertains to be from the heart of the CEO but is a combination of meaningless business terms, gushing understanding and a selection from her favourite list of platitudes.
They talk of how they “put people before profits”, forgetting that nobody outside of comms talks alliteratively. They ooze concern, “knowing what is important to me” . And they go to great lengths to explain the actions they are taking during these unpre******ed times.
These actions seem to be the same across the board. They include letting their staff work from home, focussing on deliveries and preparing us to expect long waiting times if we call them. Don’t call them. (What else are their call staff doing when working from home?)
Assuming you were alive, this wouldn’t be news.
Yet every bland email had introduced itself to me as important. A claim so preposterous that I consider reporting them all to the email police.
I remember that it is important for me to breathe. I don’t need daily emails to tell me this, either.
Pretty soon the word important is added to my Spam Folder, and these emails get deleted, unopened. But it leaves me with a nagging worry that won't go away. How many truly important emails may have suffered the same fate by being in such unfortunate company?
Everything is important, making nothing worthwhile
It appears companies feel it is mandatory to inform the nation that they’re, well, just doing their job. Or at least they would be if they weren’t too busy mobilising a crack team of email marketers to tell me this shit.
I struggle to understand why they think we care. When something is on a national scale, your priority isn’t to brief your fucking email team to tell me you understand me. It’s to get on with doing what you need to do.
Ironically, at the same time, I am getting emails from email providers telling me to jump on the Madness Bus and contact my own customers. Because it’s important… at this time… which, by the way, is unpre******ed.
It gets a little confusing as I have one email from an ISP telling me they’re doing their best , but not to call them. And another from the same provider telling me they’re on hand to help get my COVID campaign out.
For these priority comms, they have templates ready-to-go for me, so I don’t need to delay the send due to unnecessary things like thinking. Most are pre-written, so all I need do is sign off the mind-numbing nothingness, and my heartfelt concern will be shared with the numbed minds of everyone who shares it.
I didn’t send an email.
But I did start to question my own knowledge.
Had I misunderstood the definition of important? Does important actually mean…well, whatever the antonym of important may be ? (Unhelpfully when it comes to definitions, that is of course, unimportant)?
The origins and etymology of important
Important (adj) is derived from import (vb) – from the Latin importare – meaning to carry, to bring in (goods), to convey (information).
As the verb form, it appears to have been adopted by the British in the early 1500s, with the adjectival usage appearing mid the same century.
Etymologists may point you towards changes in Vulgar Latin, the developing use of the French importer and the Italian importazione to hypothesise how the meanings evolved.
It's just as likely that the definitions we know now came about through the context of use. Often words came into Old English with a very specific, literal meaning. Over time, the way the words were being used started to infer broader meaning. These inferences then grew to become part of the definition.
There are two obvious inferences at play with import:
It is impossible to import a thing without there being a place of origin whence the thing has come. (Forgive me; it's not often you get the opportunity to wheel out a whence!)
If we take the destination of the import as being the place where we are receiving it - like home - then the place of its origination must be seen as foreign, or alien. It is abroad. Which leads us nicely to the cross-country trading sense of the word import.
More relevant here is the implication of the action
As initial definitions were given literally, to bring or convey (a thing or news) required a person to do the physical carrying or bringing (of said thing or news). Which, you know, takes effort. Man has always been lazy, so to be worth the effort, the thing (or news) to be transported would have to be significant.
More significant than the news that Ira the Ironmonger was going to be changing opening hours so he could adhere to social distancing measures, for example. To be worth the import, the information to be imported needs to be important.
Or, at least, it did.
So how have things changed?
Let's go back to 1534
(the year, not just gone half three)
It's Monday morning, and you pop along to Ye Olde Jobbe Centre to check the medieval pinboard (let's go with them having pins and boards, eh??) for the new Missives Vacant list.
There's a "New outbreak of plague". Again. "More new taxes to come". Bloody Tories. And, oh what's this? "King to launch a new religion. Commoners to follow (working title) 'Church of King's England (CoKE)'. Or they will be executed in God's name. News to be imported to church leaders, local lords, etc., etc., etc. Must be complete by Friday. On pain of death".
Big news. And a big job. Off you set on horseback – or foot – the length and breadth of Henry VIII's Britain. Avoiding the plague. And hoping to avoid execution.
Fast forward to 15:34
(the time, last Monday)
It's 15:34 (just gone half three) in the 'marketing department' of a High Street Bank.
"Sue, what you doing?" shouts Roger ('call me Rog') across the office, his mouth full of Egg McMuffin.
A sigh from Sue. "You know what I'm doing Rog. I'm doing what I always do on a Monday. Updating the weekly results spreadsheet for June" (the person, not the month - in case you were curious). "Then I'm due for a fag break. Why? 'Sup?"
"Been a change to the Terms and Conditions for Easy Saver Issue 5.2. The savings rate's gone down to 0.01%."
“Oh. That’s good. But what’s that got to do with me and the price of fish?”
"Thing is I'm doing the stationery order aren't I? I'm up to my blimmin' eyes in paper clips and ring binders. So, I was wondrin' if you'd be able to put it on the CRM queue for us? Need to send out one of those customer emails, legal says."
"Yeh, sure. Will struggle today though. I've got to leave a bit early to get my roots done, haven't I?"
"That's fine. Just whenever. This week would be good."
"Is it the usual subject line?"
"Yeh. 'Important Customer Update: Please Read' – or something like that. Where you getting your hair done?"
Recent times may have put a spotlight on this practice, but we have been slowly and continually draining all importance out of the word important for a few years now.
Possibly since someone popped an ‘e’ before CRM to make it a ‘thing’ and hurriedly started employing shedloads of people to do online versions of mailpacks.
What would have happened if COVID had arrived pre-email? Would I have received 76 pieces of Direct Mail if this were 1998?
Or is it just because we can, we do.
Because we shouldn’t.
Email has made a slut of important, its impact decreasing exponentially with its overuse. It is as weak as poor nice. You may not realise you’ve become blind to it, but it’s unlikely you will give it any thought, any priority, when important whispers out at you from an email subject line.
And that’s kinda dangerous.
Or it will be. When it comes to something that will impact your life. And you don’t see it.
When that something really is, you know, of enough significance that it merited the effort to import.