I wrote about this new notion which claims to combine the agile organisation with a peer-to-peer workplace for British Airways Business Life in 2014, but judging from a recent Quartz article  (the link follows below), the concept continues to be influential – and controversial…


Image result for holacracy

Taking its name from the Greek holon, meaning an autonomous unit, the very latest thing in organisational theory promotes a new and radical flattening of the pyramid. Embracing holacracy, as online shoe retailer Zappos has done, means moving from a traditional hierarchy to distributed leadership whereby managers and job titles are replaced by work teams (known as circles) who choose their own tasks. According to its often messianic proponents the system involves ‘thinking beyond shareholders and stakeholders’, ‘dispensing with parental heroic leaders’ and ‘baking empowerment into the core of the organization by ‘detecting dissonance and processing tensions’. There are a very few successful firms – the Gore company of Gore-Tex fame is one – who have been virtually managerless for decades, but critics of the holacracy movement claim that it only works for outliers – quirky SMEs, local or family companies on the margins – and can’t provide the sophisticated governance and discipline required in larger and more complex corporations.



Zappos is struggling with Holacracy because humans aren’t designed to operate like software


Students and fellow participants at King’s College London’s Language and Popular Culture Laboratory wrote about a joint presentation that Iranian colleague Dr Negar Ardakani and I gave last year. The talk took a first look at comparative data on Persian and English youth slang collected in glossaries and lexicons from the two countries.

The article, shared by kind permission, is here:


Negar and I hope to refine our material and publish a more complete version of our talk in due course. In the meantime, if anyone is interested, we can provide more details in very rough draft form if contacted directly.




The opposite of privacy. A neologism which has been promoted by social media guru Stowe Boyd as a counter to ‘privacy’ in its more controversial online contexts. He claims it will be the defining concept of the next decade. In his words, ‘rather than concealing things, and limiting access to those explicitly invited, tools based on publicy default to things being open and with open access.’ In looking at how providers and users choose to regulate digital content and steer social interactions, Wired magazine has preferred the term sociality, (originating in the jargon of sociology and biology to describe the degree to which animals are prepared to socialise) to designate the possible new default settings for social networking sites. Some claim that behind the simply technical aspects of changing setting-priorities lies a quite new response to digitality (the condition of existing in a digitalised world), a philosophy which, while not totally discounting privacy, transcends outmoded traditions of secrecy and anonymity. Others have observed pointedly that in an era of the free no-one makes money by creating private communities.



Send your buzzwords, jargon and new and exotic usages to tony.thorne@kcl.ac.uk


Two more recent buzzwords, to reignite the debate that I delight in: are these ludicrous and redundant formulations, designed to bamboozle and bemuse, or are they valid – even laudable – examples of creative lexical innovation? 



 Inspired by the 34 minutes in 2013 during which Oreo cookies seized on a power cut at the Super Bowl to tweet ‘…you can still dunk in the dark’, moment marketing, also known as adaptive or reactive marketing, is advertising’s current obsession. The concept stretches from running digital campaigns off the back of real-world events (Paddy Power and Mini cars capitalising on the horse meat scandal, Warburtons bakery on a royal birth) to personalising customer relationships by tracking what consumers are doing at particular times of day – accessing different media, planning journeys or caring for kids for instance – and recording significant dates in their lives. Brands can emphasise authenticity and spontaneity by reacting speedily to trending topics – not just sports but showbiz, politics, weather – cutting to a minimum the time it takes to get from ideation to posting. In the jargon this is described as moving from real-time marketing to right-time marketing, linking offline to online to exploit hype-cycles and micro-moments.

The notion’s topicality is captured in TVTY agency’s new year message for 2017…

“As we have seen in 2016, careful moment planning – the process of deciding which moments matter most to a target audience – can lead to exciting results…we’ve seen the Germans and Italians win gold at the Olympics, the FMCG sector scored big at the Euros and there was a huge surge in ad-jacking during the Super Bowl. But 2017 is set to be even bigger and marketers need to ensure moment planning is a top priority…we have highlighted the events that will capture the attention of millions of consumers across the globe in our new tent pole event calendar.”



‘Before making buying decisions millennials prefer to comparison on digital media’ is an example of ‘nerbing’, the converting of nouns into verbs (conference, signature and caveat are other recent examples), which business jargon delights in. In the same way hero has morphed from familiar noun to trendy verb in the last couple of years, as in ‘we will hero the women who align with our brand values’. Verbs may also become nouns, witness the ask, the build and the recover, while some jargoneers have turned solve into a noun and made solution a verb. Incentive was transformed first into incentivise and later abbreviated to incent. Another twist is to create new plurals, for example ‘practitioners will share practical learnings and advice on how brands can scale their operations across geographies.’ Egregious errors or desperate attempts at novelty depending on your take, these innovations may sometimes signal a subtle shift in meaning, so that comparison as verb refers not to comparing in general but specifically to online sites.

More on ‘nerbing’ from an early piece in Buzz Feed:





Send buzzwords, jargon and new and exotic usages to tony.thorne@kcl.ac.uk


In January and February 2016 Bethlem Museum of the Mind is staging an exhibition devoted to the art of Louis Wain, once a patient at the Bethlem Royal Hospital, formerly the notorious  ‘Bedlam’ asylum in Southeast London where in earlier times the public came to gaze at inmates. Wain is categorised as a visionary or outsider artist, like other self-taught creators who work outside the mainstream and share characteristics such as reclusiveness, mental impairment or extreme eccentricity. He is among the best known practitioners of outsider art,  also known as Art Brut, because his sequences of images seemed to many to track the progressive psychological or psychic disintegration that accompanies a ‘descent’ into mental illness.

Here is my profile of Wain, followed by details of the exhibition.



 By Tony Thorne

Louis Wain - Click to enlarge

‘The solitary one more real persian cat is the one that is now going to be the one that is the real living animal left alone until the call is given to it at night time this evening … This can be done by giving the call directly the light is seen after the first sleep is over… It is the perfect cat made the more perfect by the willingness given to it.’

 This bizarre text, scribbled on the obverse of a cat portrait, is the work of someone who was once one of England’s most renowned illustrators. Born in London in1860, the artist and visionary Louis Wain travelled a path from obscurity to fame, and back again into seclusion and silence, before his death in 1939 in Napsbury Hospital in Hertfordshire. He was born with a slightly deformed mouth and was kept apart from other children until the age of ten. Even after that the dreamy, distracted boy rarely attended school, preferring to wander around museums and the London dockyards, inhabiting his own private world. He found his vocation at the West London Institute of Art where he studied and for a while taught, before turning to freelance illustration to make his living, beginning with accomplished, naturalistic drawings of birds, dogs, rabbits and fish. When his new wife Emily lay dying of cancer in their home, Louis sat at her bedside and drew her faithful companion, their cat, Peter, and it was these drawings that first caught the public imagination. From 1890 Wain’s cat caricatures, reproduced in magazines like the Illustrated London News and Punch, became a bestselling part of the Edwardian fashion for sentimental pictures of animals, especially dressed as humans and playing human roles, and the artist became a household name.

An early painting, also from 1890, of a group of cats watching a beetle crossing a tablecloth, is both a tour de force of oil technique and, in the intensity of the cats’ quizzical expressions, a faint precursor of future strangeness, (or is this just because we see it with hindsight, knowing what was to become of the artist?)

Louis Wain - Click to enlarge

Louis himself was considered a charming, shy eccentric with an odd, indirect conversational style: he liked particularly to talk of cats’ unusual links with electricity, their sensitivity and intelligence, he tried to interest breeders in developing a spotted variety of cat. He not only depicted cats again and again, acting out fairy-tales, posing in oriental vignettes, impersonating Edwardian gentlemen, in sketches, paintings and book illustrations, on postcards and on keepsakes, to the delight of his new audience, but became a public figure, a champion and patron of the cat as a cherished pet with a life of its own (a late Victorian and Edwardian novelty; previously they had been kept, by men at least, mainly to control vermin). In the decade before World War I Wain was producing up to 600 cat pictures every year; his Louis Wain Annual appeared in 1901, was published every year until 1914, then occasionally up to 1923. ‘English cats that do not look like Louis Wain cats are ashamed of themselves’, pronounced the writer H.G Wells.

Louis Wain - Click to enlarge

In 1907 Wain’s fame took him to the USA, but, never able to manage money and hopeless at negotiating adequate fees, he returned to London penniless. Not long after this came the first signs of a profound psychic change, and a gradual transformation of the artist’s vision which can be tracked through his later, unpublished works. It is this latter phase of Wain’s working life that has fascinated scholars and members of the medical community. The cats, still playing ball, picnicking, performing on musical instruments, frolicking in gardens, appear more frenzied or ecstatic, their fur electrified, the colours heightened, even livid. Later the titles and printing instructions pencilled on the back of his pictures sometimes mutate into rambling mystical texts, creeping over the page and onto the illustrations themselves.

Wain had spent most of his widowhood living with his five sisters, the youngest of whom, Marie became convinced that she was suffering from leprosy, was witnessing murders, and was certified insane in 1900. Tellingly, in the same year, thirteen years after his wife’s tragic death, Wain recollected that he, she and Peter the cat had formed points on an electric circuit, Emily and the cat acting as batteries. He later imagined that visits to the cinema were robbing his sisters of the electricity which animated them. After Caroline, his eldest sister, died in 1917 Louis’ behaviour became more and more erratic, finally violent. In 1924 he was formally diagnosed as suffering from dementia and placed in a pauper’s ward in Springfield asylum, where the diagnosis was revised to one of schizophrenia. The patient said that he had been ‘bothered by spirits night and day for six years.’ It seemed as if his public had forgotten him, but one year later he was discovered and a campaign by celebrities, including aristocrats, the most eminent authors (Galsworthy and Wells among them) and the prime minister himself, raised thousands of pounds for his care and resulted in him being moved to more pleasant surroundings. While he was incarcerated in the Bethlem Hospital in South London (heir to the infamous Bedlam), Wain made a black-and-white sketch of the hospital exterior, the wards in the background, a solitary cat in the foreground. He presented the drawing as a gift to a visiting clergyman, ‘the cat’, he declared, ‘is me.’

Louis Wain - Click to enlarge

From the early 1920s some abstract tapestry-like patterns had started to appear in Wain’s work, first perhaps recalling the oriental textiles in which his father traded and his mother’s religious embroideries, but becoming more and more spiked and vivid until they begin to invade the foreground, merging with and finally in some cases overwhelming the central images. Possibly better known today than any of the early, conventional works or the jaunty, lovable caricatures is a sequence of five cat portraits, preserved in the Guttman-Maclay archive at the Bethlem museum, that seem to illustrate in the most dramatic way the gradual disintegration of a human personality, a realistic cat morphing into a frenzied apparition before fragmenting into a kaleidoscope of jagged, electrified particles. These images have been reproduced in textbooks and generally taken as visual evidence of mental breakdown, but the truth may be a little more complicated. It’s doubtful that these undated works were completed in the order they are shown and some have tried to claim that they come from very different periods of Wain’s career, (although the staff who nursed him confirmed that they all appeared in the 1930s).

From a conventional viewpoint, Wain may indeed seem a textbook case of schizophrenia, (more recent speculations have included toxoplasmosis and Asperger’s Syndrome) but looked at with a more open mind, his journey can be appreciated in a different way. The gentle, baffled, unworldly outsider comes to identify with the cat for its extreme delicacy and its instinctive, mysterious empathy…and the faint static experienced when stroking its fur becomes an obsession with electrical currents. The distinction between the cat, the self and their surroundings begins to blur. One less orthodox take on so-called schizophrenia is that it is an extreme case of sensitivity and empathy in which the individual personality dissolves, moves beyond our banal human concerns and eventually becomes one with its environment, with all of creation.

Louis Wain - Click to enlarge

During the last period of his life Louis Wain also produced a series of mysterious psychedelic landscapes, part imaginary, partly referencing indirectly real places that he may have known or seen. These scenes usually contain no cats, some depict birds or deer among streams, waterfalls, blossoms and bright coloured leaves, several no living thing at all. In one such work, ‘Ethereal City’, a lone human figure, a tiny man in suit and hat, wheels a trolley through the foreground. Behind him stretch steep hills and deep valleys, more Tibetan than English, with white castellated buildings and walls winding into the distance. Others feature different styles of architecture; mock-Tudor baronial or oriental cupolas. (Wain’s signature on these paintings, incidentally, is clear and firm, identical to those on the early, celebrated productions.)

The late landscapes seem to show a serene, though magically, surreally luminous, world into which the artist himself was disappearing. His visitors in his last years described a peaceful old gentleman, sweeping up leaves or meditating in a deckchair, his agitation and aggression long subsided: still physically inhabiting his quiet institutional home, he perhaps had entered another even more tranquil, idyllic place. As he himself once wrote: ‘I am the origin of nothing I came to the world to try to be the whole of creation I was told the world went round I was told the world went to sleep I awoke to the truth. I was nothing…’

Louis Wain - Click to enlarge

In recent years new generations have rediscovered Wain’s cats – his first posthumous exhibition was in 1972 – and he is once again a celebrated, bestselling artist. Now, though, our appreciation of him must be more complex, taking in the fantastical, unsettling, transcendent hinterland of the cat and its creator along with the charm and enchantment of the wide-eyed, cavorting felines.

Copyright Tony Thorne 2017


Here are details of the current exhibition of Wain’s works, with an excellent review and biography and links to related sites of interest:






I’m interested in the extent to which the trendy jargon of business and lifestyle really is transient, as it’s often presumed to be. Many of the buzzwords which I discovered and tried to analyse back in the noughties decade are no longer current. Some of them never managed to escape the rarefied circles in which they were invented and briefly exchanged. Others, however, still resonate  – and still, remarkably, are seen as innovative and novel. Here are two examples of what I mean: can you decide in which years the following words were written?


Image result for presenting numbers interesting way


I’m almost certainly in the top category – a so-called high skeptic – on Obermiller and Spangenburg’s grading of consumers’ resistance to advertising claims. I’m endlessly irritated for instance at prices that end in 95p or 99p rather than go the whole hog. This tactic is crude and familiar, but other forms of number manipulation and the quasi-technical terms describing them increasingly crop up in commercial conversation.

Theorists of customer behaviour and information load describe my bugbear as the (positive) nine-ending effect, closely related to the (negative) left digit effect – if increasing the price causes the leftmost digit to change, the sale may well be lost. In analysing consumer inference and the processing of brand information the experts cite a numerical superiority effect. This simply means that claims expressed in numbers (‘78.6% effective’) appear to be objective  – based on empirical data – while claims expressed in words (‘finished to the highest technical standards’) tend to be judged as subjective. The same distinction operates between round figures or round numbers, often suspected of being approximations or guesstimates, and sharp numbers, assumed to demonstrate verifiability. This quirk of human psychology the experts describe as precision heuristics. Round numbers incidentally don’t always have to end in zero: given our system based on tens, fives are also salient (i.e more memorable and processed more readily).

Mathematician Stanislas Dehaene highlighted these and other psychological features of number-perception a decade ago, (and Proctor and Gamble’s claim that their Ivory soap was ‘99 and 44/100 per cent pure’ is a century old), but only recently have they begun to cross over into public awareness. The housing market in particular has woken up to a related phenomenon, that buyers have an innate tendency to treat sharp numbers as lower than round ones. They may for example unconsciously perceive £725,000 as higher than £725,647. Sharp numbers play a key role, too, in the pique technique, also known as mindful persuasion, whereby a request is made in an unusual way to pique the subject’s interest, usually illustrated by the simple example of a beggar asking for 97p instead of a pound. Such requests have been shown to have a potential 60% success-rate as opposed to 10% for round figures.

In US financial journalism, by the way, the phrase sharp numbers has another, predictable, sense: it means the numbers that hurt.


Image result for spheres


According to research by Standard Life Bank two out of three Brits in their 30s and 40s are now suffering from status anxiety about their homes, prompting TV consumer psychologist Benjamin Fry to attempt a more detailed diagnosis. They are apparently experiencing improvenza, which sounds like another affliction, but is touted not as the disease but the potential cure, involving as it does reconfiguring the work-life balance and, as often as not, renovating rather than moving. The notion of status anxiety as a defining modern malaise has been around for some time, but was popularised by UK philosopher Alain de Botton in his 2004 book of the same name. US trendspotter Faith Popcorn has since argued that it is moral status anxiety which increasingly defines our attitudes. She and others have been predicting the end of conspicuous consumption, to be replaced by conspicuous austerity (slogan: ‘less is the new more’), thrifting (opting for low-cost, low-profile living) or conscientious consumption, whereby our individual standing is defined by how far we manage to combine spending and leisure pursuits with self-improvement and charitable works.

Amsterdam-based Trendwatching.com, who also single out status as the key driver of new consumer behaviours, this year upped the stakes by coining the expression status despair to describe the awful realisation, for example, that a fellow oligarch has a more sumptuously fitted-out private jet than you. Journalists have identified other manifestations of this new angst, ranging from yacht-envy to bag-envy. The latter, according to media strategist Tracy Hofman, can be countered by what she calls status flair, ‘the thrill that resonates when you realise that the quilted Chanel handbag you acquired in 1990 is now back in fashion!’

Trendwatching claim that, in an experience economy, hierarchies based purely on spending power are outdated, supplanted by so-called status-spheres; different areas of activity such as ‘participation’, ‘giving’, ‘experiencing’ from which individuals derive self-validation and peer-recognition. In the same way those physical status symbols – visible, tangible purchases for display – are giving way to status stories, told not by manufacturers but by consumers bragging to other consumers, presumably by word-of-mouth and by way of blogging and viralling, about their personalised adventure holidays, their web-presence, not-for-profit investments, eco-credentials, etc.


Nativity – piety and puns


Image result for ancient nativity scene

Christmas Eve in the Anglosphere is a curious concatenation of Christian iconography, pagan indulgence and excess (including in some cases the illicit practices described in my last post) and quaint folk custom. The tradition of the excruciating pun, still to be found inside the Christmas cracker, but now a staple, too, of waggish posts on social media, puts language centre-stage. A quite different shared language is the repertoire of terms used to tell the Christmas story itself: ancient, resonant words originating in the gospels and coming down to us by way of re-translation and reinterpretation, but so familiar as to pass unexamined.

This year I took a look at both varieties of Christmas language in this article for The Conversation



Image result for stone manger wall


…and more on those awful cracker jokes here:



…and here are thoughts from a believer on the name(s) of Jesus:







One of the showbiz gossip-sheet Popbitch’s favourite words of the last decade, the online crowd-sourced Urban Dictionary’s earliest citations of it are from 2003, defining it in one instance as cocaine, in another as amphetamine or methamphetamine. The short sharp single-syllable in question is gak.

It interests me because it seems to be without precedent, ‘of uncertain etymology’ as the dictionary compilers have it. The same word is, in their jargon, ‘polysemous’, and can mean quite different things: paraphernalia, ‘stuff’ used on-set in the jargon of movie crews; something nauseating, or an exclamation of disgust in high-school slang, and semen or ejaculation in the argot of pornographers and sexploitation professionals. Like gank it can also mean to steal, rob or plagiarise in the US street argot and cyberslang of the noughties.

From comments supplied by those ‘donating’ the word to Urban Dictionary or other online lexicons the drug it most often denotes seems to vary according to region: methamphetamine in Nevada, cocaine only in London (just this week replaced by Antwerp as Europe’s number one consumer according to analysis of the water) and marihuana in Sydney, Australia. On an online forum in 2002 a UK-based contributor asserts that ‘gak is cocaine’, noting the trending expression gak attack to describe sniffing the drug from a partner’s naked body or blowing it up their nose.

When I first encountered the word I guessed that it had something to do with the involuntary constriction of the throat that the sound of it replicates, a connection which would fit with more than one of its referents, but I had no evidence to support this. Green’s Dictionary of Slang has a citation from 1997 with the spelling gack, and hazards that it may derive from a British dialect word for chatter, which I think is doubtful. In my own 2014 Bloomsbury Dictionary of Contemporary Slang I glossed it then as ‘probably the most widespread nickname for the drug in use from the mid-noughties’, though it now has rivals in chang and chop, opining that it ‘may be an imitation of a gagging reflex or sudden swallowing and/or snorting as a dramatic reaction to ingestion.’

The word highlights an interesting challenge that the lexicographer, of slang in particular, has to grapple with; the fact that in the communities where such terms are coined and traded there are no real authorities. There are anonymous individuals fluent in the colourful nonstandard vocabulary, ‘expert users’ in linguistic jargon, but these are not ‘language experts’ who can compare and contrast and draw on knowledge of earlier examples. Even when the real-world informants that fieldworkers rely on offer up a convincing etymology, as they often do, accompanied by plausible anecdotal supporting evidence of who said it first, in which locations the expression is widely used, etc. these confident assertions are as likely as not to be mistaken, if not invented for the occasion. The dates attached to reports of slang may not mean much either: most slang originates in speech and slang usages can be exchanged for years in an underground milieu before they come to the notice of commentators. Dictionary citations nearly always record only the first printed examples.

Consumers of illicit drugs inevitably coin their own nicknames for the substances they ‘abuse’. They aren’t going to use the ‘official’ technical names for the chemical compounds in question (unless reworked as in Ket, K or Special K for Ketamine) and ownership of an exotic and mysterious alternative marks out the user (of the words and the drug) as an insider, a member of an exclusive, transgressive community. When a drug is a crucial part of a shared sense of identity its users will come up with more than one name for it, eventually developing a whole range of colourful references, a phenomenon known as ‘hypersynonymy’ (drinkers, university students for example, also do this, using scores of more interesting ways of saying ‘drunk’). Whether they see themselves as glamorous or fun-loving or abject and pitiful, cocaine enthusiasts can in the midst of euphoria display a hint of levity, as my own favourite terms beak and bugle (both older British slang synonyms for nose) and, evoking the singleminded satisfying of animal appetite, nosebag, testify.


     o         o       o


This helpful 2016 guide to drug nicknames from VICE magazine includes our key word, and provides comments on users and usage:


…and Gak’s popularity is highlighted in this Londoner’s blog from 2013:


High society magazine Tatler investigated fashionable drug use and its terminology in 2013:



…and UK drug advisory agency FRANK published this A- Z of drug slang:



(NOT) Girls’ Talk


Any ALL CAPS Anger Message


Gal-dem, also galsdem or gyalsdem, refers in London’s multiethnic street-talk to a group of females (mansdem is the male counterpart). It’s also the name of a magazine for women of colour. I talked to Faima Bakar about the street attitudes that mean that girls are criticised for using slang and profanity while boys use them with impunity. The topic relates both to MLE, the mixed urban dialect favoured by many young people, and Banter, a hot issue again in 2016. Both of these are treated elsewhere on this site, but here’s Faima’s article on boys and slang




Madame Tussaud


Some years ago I wrote a short life of the waxworker par excellence, Madame Marie Tussaud, for children. Mme Tussaud lived through, and profited from, the French Revolution, having previously, she claimed, served members of the French Royal Family at Versailles. She became a leading promoter of spectacle and entertainment in the French capital, then emigrated to London where she established her famous wax museum. As well as being a successful female entrepreneur, a businesswoman before such a concept really existed, Tussaud was a pioneer of what we might call in modern parlance the ‘commodification of celebrity’.

Now, at long last, this complex and elusive character – or characters, given her capacity for embellishment and reinvention – has been celebrated, and some at least of the complexities and contradictions in her story unravelled, in a full-length documentary treatment by French director Nina Barbier.

The TV film, in French, is here: