How brands destroy words

What if we’ve already corrupted a word that’s central to the survival of our species?

Tom Hoare
Words by Tom Hoare, 18.01.2023

In 1660, terrific – derived from the Latin word terrificus (to cause terror or fear) – meant frightening.

I seem to have caught the black death – how terrific!

By 1809, it had shifted to mean severe.

Last night I dropped 8 guineas on a bottle of rum and now have a terrific headache.

By 1888, its meaning had totally inverted and was used colloquially to mean excellent.

Terrific to see Preston win the League Cup; long may it continue!

And with the advent of the internet, words are changing their meanings quicker than ever before. Social networking in the 1990s? Very different to what we’d call social networking today.

Alongside words changing, it’s also possible for words to completely lose their meanings, too.

Have you ever done that thing where you repeat a word over and over until it just sounds super weird, like a random sound? There’s a name for this. It’s called semantic satiation.

For the most part, this is a short-term phenomenon. But there are some words that, each time we use them, we chip away a little bit at their souls: Awesome. Literally. Basically. Black Friday. (This isn’t to say that Black Friday ever had a soul to begin with.)

Sure. You could be forgiven for thinking it’s not a very big deal. And for the most part, you’d be right. But what about if the word that is losing its meaning is an important one – a word that should be playing a critical role in the survival of our species?


Brands and corporations have corrupted sustainability because sustainability was ripe for corruption. As a word, it lacks an easily explainable and cohesive definition. In our heads, it conjures up some fuzzy image of a better future, and that’s what brands and marketers have been able to exploit – its lack of specificity.

The OED defines sustainability as “the practice of being sustainable”. Sustainable, then, can be defined as something “maintained at a certain rate or level.” In this sense of the word, we already live in a sustainable world because we’re certainly maintaining the rate at which we’re about to colossally end ourselves.

Call it what you like – virtue signalling, greenwashing, purpose-washing, gaslighting, sloganeering, propagandising, collective delusion. We need to find a way to ensure hollow words do not obscure empty actions.

How do we do that?

Brands and branding agencies alike especially need to be more aware of the words they use. But more importantly, don’t just say you’re sustainable, ethical, eco-conscious, vegan – give actual specifics.

When we worked with Zora, an ethical chocolate producer, it was important to specify exactly what made them ethical. In the context of chocolate production, what does ethical even mean? Cadbury and Nestle both make the same claim, yet they are obviously not in any way, shape or form ethical companies.

For Zora, ethics actually meant equity. It meant that farmers, and in particular female farmers, should receive a fair price for the beans they grow. It meant ensuring that their children have access to education. It meant dispelling stereotypes that cocoa beans from West Africa are sub-quality compared to those from Central America. It meant breaking the association of luxury chocolate as something distinctly white European.

You can read more about our work with Zora here.