"Sins against the language"

« previous post | next post »

Jonathan Bouquet, "May I have a word about… the sins of Twitter, Meta and Amazon", The Guardian 11/20/2022:

[As if making thousands of people redundant were not bad enough, they compound it with their use of language]

It won’t have escaped your notice that the internet giants are going though turbulent times, with huge job losses announced at Twitter, Meta and Amazon. In the case of the last, it has been reported that the company is to start cutting 10,000 jobs within days to make its “fulfilment centres” more streamlined. In my day, a place where goods are stored, packed and sent to customers who have ordered them used to be known as a warehouse. […]

And thank you to Roy Perry for the following: “An offering from the November magazine of Weardale Railway Trust (of which I am a member): ‘Train operations have continued throughout the summer and ridership has been very encouraging.’”

It's good to see that (some) British writers are still clinging to the reins of their undocumented linguistic hobbyhorses. The OED tells us that fulfillment in the sense "The completion and dispatch of a customer's order" dates back at least to 1819 (in the Sheffield Independent, "The speedy execution and satisfactory fulfilment of all Orders that may be entrusted to their care.") And a 1979 Technical Report from the Commission of the European Communities, Problems of Document Delivery for the EURONET User, includes this passage among others:

It is recommended that the mechanism for direct telecommunications network transmission of document requests to fulfillment centre be developed, in which participating document fulfillment centres would be able to interrogate the parking file of the host and extract and have printed out, at the centre, all orders earmarked for it. This development should be undertaken concurrently with A, as it is merely a refinement of the system, requiring only that the document fulfillment centre be equipped with a terminal and printer.

The warehouse where I had a summer job many years ago was a very different kind of place from today's "fulfillment centers": it was a building full of stacks of large packaged furniture, where shipments arrived from manufacturers and were sent out to retail stores, without any repackaging, by a relatively small staff.

As for ridership, a 1999 Guardian book review (by a different writer) begins

While listening in a desultory way to an otherwise desultory discussion about the future of public transport, I thought I heard John Prescott claim that ridership is growing. Ridership? I may be cloth-eared but I don't recollect hearing that word in this context before. Nor do any of the dictionaries that throng my house, noisily competing for my attention (" 'Snot fair! What about me? You used rotten old Chambers last time!") contain the word ridership. More cautious politicians might have said passenger utilisation rates, or even conveyance throughput, but Prescott (I think) said ridership. And why not? If newspapers can have readership, buses and trains can have ridership, and that's an end to the matter.

The OED does say that ridership in the sense of "The number of passengers using a particular form of transport" is "Originally North American", so perhaps it will be a few more decades before Mr. Bouquet accepts it in place of such straightforward alternatives as "passenger utilisation rates" or "conveyance throughput". Or perhaps not, since his "May I have a word about..." machine requires a steady supply of linguistic feedstock ("peevestock"?), including congenial theories about the allegedly responsible parties.


  1. Mark P said,

    November 22, 2022 @ 9:43 am

    In my day, a warehouse was where stock was stored in large quantities before it was sent to a retail store, not to a customer.

  2. Mark Liberman said,

    November 22, 2022 @ 9:55 am

    @Mark P: Exactly. And such warehouses still exist, of course.

    I had a summer job in that kind of warehouse, many years ago — and I added a note about it to the original post, as you were adding your comment.

    No doubt Mr. Bouquet knows that the newer phrase reflects a newer reality, but recognizing that fact would impact the availability of crucial peevestock.

  3. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 22, 2022 @ 10:01 am

    I like how he's so self-confident that he doesn't need to either explain why the quoted passage is sinful (because he assumes his fanbase will understand w/o explanation?) or what alternative phrasing would be non-sinful. E.g., would substituting "the level of ridership" for bare "ridership" be acceptable?

  4. Timothy Rowe said,

    November 22, 2022 @ 11:32 am

    I think the expected term for "ridership" would be "passenger numbers".

  5. Haamu said,

    November 22, 2022 @ 1:31 pm

    Peevership levels appear to be holding steady.

  6. Cervantes said,

    November 22, 2022 @ 3:15 pm

    Objecting to perfectly standard usage seems to be a long endemic disease. I remember more than 40 years ago a letter to the editor of the (now defunct) Washington Times objecting to "fund" as a verb and the mere appearance of the words feisty and grungy. They printed it, and then were forced to print my reply. "Perhaps our feisty correspondent is only funded for a grungy dictionary."

  7. Cervantes said,

    November 22, 2022 @ 3:21 pm

    Oops. I should have said the Washington Star, of course, I would not have read the Washington Times, a Moonie publication.

  8. Brett said,

    November 22, 2022 @ 3:31 pm

    @Mark Liberman: I want to give peevestock three syllables; I think it sounds better that way.

  9. cameron said,

    November 22, 2022 @ 3:31 pm

    I don't see how anyone can complain about "ridership" as a coinage. The author of the quotation from 1999 has it right. It's a word made of perfectly English bits, combined in a perfectly English way, and its sense is transparent to a native speaker due to its analogous relationship with a number of other previously-coined words.

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 22, 2022 @ 4:18 pm

    I found in the google books corpus a perfectly ordinary-sounding use of this sense of "ridership" in a report from back in 1965, but it was a U.S. federal gov't publication (Washington, D.C.'s subway system was in the planning stages, and estimates were being made of what its total daily/yearly ridership might be anticipated to be by 1980), so that tends to confirm the "originally North American" disclaimer of the OED. And Americanisms are perhaps inherently sinful in the view of this peever and his target audience?

  11. Mark Liberman said,

    November 22, 2022 @ 4:50 pm

    @J.W. Brewer: See also "Peeve of the week: 20% correct", 7/16/2011; "Hating Americans and their Americanisms", 7/20/2011.

  12. Michael Watts said,

    November 23, 2022 @ 6:46 am

    Both Bouquet and you appear to be jumping the gun a bit. Amazon's warehouses are called warehouses, as well as being formally called "fulfillment centers"; check out this advertisement for a position on the "Amazon warehouse team" as a "Fulfillment Center Warehouse Associate": https://hiring.amazon.com/job-opportunities/fulfillment-center-jobs . I assume that they are called "fulfillment centers" in the same way that garbage collectors are called "sanitation engineers".

    I'm baffled by the complaint about "ridership"; viewership and leadership seem like obvious analogues (where "leadership" refers to a set of people rather than a quality).

  13. Ben Tolley said,

    November 23, 2022 @ 9:52 am

    I think the dislike of ridership may be not just American itself, but it depends on a distinctly American use of ride – you can ride horses and bicycles in Britain, but not trains (at least, not in any comfort). I'm with Timothy Rowe: passenger numbers is the obvious term for this.

  14. Ben Tolley said,

    November 23, 2022 @ 9:52 am

    *edit: not just that it's American itself

  15. Michèle Sharik Pituley said,

    November 23, 2022 @ 11:21 am

    Regarding Amazon: they have several types of facilities in warehouse-style buildings (vast open things that look a bit like airplane hangars), most of which employ “warehouse associates”. Fulfillment centers (FCs) are just one type of facility. There are also Sort Centers (which employ “Sortation Associates”), Delivery Stations, and Crossdocks (which take inbound from suppliers & distribute to FCs). There may be others, too, but those are the ones I know about.

    There are different types of FCs, too.

  16. Anton said,

    November 23, 2022 @ 7:03 pm

    Hmm. While I dislike the tenor of the original article (one of those cheap pieces about language that betray more about the author's prejudices than everything) this blog entry itself is something of a peeve about peeving, and not immune from a bit of criticism in its own right.

    While the author of the original piece is irritatingly unclear as to why he finds the quoted text so obnoxious, I think some unwarranted assumptions are made in this critique. Providing evidence of the historical usage of the various terms is a telling riposte if the original author is claiming they are new – but here it is not at all clear that this is the reason for his disdain.

    My own reading of the article is that he may be more agitated about these phrases because of their euphemistic or pompous tone, which would remain true regardless of their provenance. There certainly is not enough here to warrant the assumption that presenting their history is in itself a compellng rebuttal of his assumptions.

    (Yes he writes "In my day.." but that could as easily be an appeal to the natural folk idiom – as opposed to highfalutin jargon – as it could be to the past.)

  17. Rebecca said,

    November 23, 2022 @ 10:54 pm

    “Peevestock” sounds to me like it should be a large, but annoying, music festival.

  18. Terry Hunt said,

    November 24, 2022 @ 6:27 am

    'Fulfilment' refers specifically to combining the correct items into a consignment to fulfil a customer's order, or placing the appropriate documents and advertising material in envelopes to fulfil the requirements of mail shots. It was the standard industry term when I worked in a direct-mail marketing company back in the 1980s, so it's hardly a vile neologism.

    Nowadays, large-scale "envelope stuffing" is probably mostly mechanised, but back then it was often done manually.

    At one point, the Fulfilment Department of our company was split off as a separate firm so that it could seek business from other companies, operate more efficiently and generate more income. They were most upset when some of us laughed at their first advertising slogan: "Hand fulfilment our speciality."

  19. poftim said,

    November 24, 2022 @ 8:10 am


    I agree. I don't think peeving is necessarily is such a terrible thing. For me there's a clear distinction between "I don't like this usage because I find it pompous or euphemistic or overly PC or just nails-on-a-blackboard" (fine) and "I don't like this usage, so it must be WRONG" (not fine).

    Terry Hunt,

    Ha! I agree that "fulfilment" is industry standard. I worked in a company more recently where most of the mail marketing was automated, and the term "manual fulfilment" (for the time-consuming remainder) was used extensively. I found the term amusing but no one else seemed to bat an eyelid.

  20. Chas Belov said,

    November 24, 2022 @ 11:07 pm

    @Ben Tolley: ¡Wait! ¿What? If you don't ride trains in Britain then ¿what do you do with them?

  21. Levantine said,

    November 25, 2022 @ 1:17 am

    You take them, Chas Belov.

  22. Taylor, Philip said,

    November 25, 2022 @ 5:10 am

    One does indeed "take a train" in the UK, Chas/Levantine, but one can also "catch a train", something that our Portuguese/Swiss maître d' found rather amusing yesterday evening. I explained to him that as one only ever catches a train when it is stationary on a platform, it was at that moment at rest, had zero inertia, and was therefore easy to catch …

  23. Philip Anderson said,

    November 25, 2022 @ 8:41 am

    Although we don’t ride trains, planes or buses in Britain, we do go for train rides etc. Ridership sounds odd to me, but as jargon or an Americanism; if it were analogical to leadership or seamanship, it would mean a rider’s skill (a gender-neutral term for horsemanship?), unlike the collective meaning in readership or membership (maybe those are less-skilled activities). Viewership sounds wrong to me too.

    But I wouldn’t go as far as this retired teacher:
    “‘Ride the train’, although understood is not English, it is American terminology.”

  24. Levantine said,

    November 25, 2022 @ 10:30 am

    “Catch” and “take” are not synonymous for me. “I took the train” means nothing more than “I rode it”, whereas “I caught the train” implies that I managed to get on just before it was leaving the station.

  25. Taylor, Philip said,

    November 25, 2022 @ 11:52 am

    Well, for me, "I caught the 18:34 to Penzance from London Paddington" is simply a statement for fact — there is no implication that I only just caught it. In fact, I would be far more likely to write (and to say) "I caught …" in such a context than I would to write/say "I took". If, however, there were no reference to any specific train, then I might well say/write (e.g.,) "Well, you could take the TGV to Rheims …".

  26. Gregory Kusnick said,

    November 25, 2022 @ 12:36 pm

    Old Mad Magazine gag:

    "Can I take this train to Altoona?"

    "That's not necessary. It's going there anyway."

  27. AJ said,

    November 28, 2022 @ 10:48 am

    Are we sure Mr Bouquet's name isn't actually Bucket?

RSS feed for comments on this post