From the book “Shoot the Puppy: A Survival Guide to the Curious Jargon of Modern Life“, by linguist Tony Thorne, Head of the Language Centre at Kings College London:
Meaning: how radical concepts are destroyed by too much consultation
I first heard this bizword when I shared a microphone recently with a Californian, Steve Manning. The occasion was a BBC radio discussion of the ongoing craze for re-branding companies, something Steve, boss of the US naming agency, Igor (as in the doctor’s assistant in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein), is an expert on.
Vanillacide is an updated version of the old notions of death-by-committee, or the death-of-a-thousand-cuts by which new and creative proposals are diluted and diluted until they become universally acceptable – and wholly unoriginal.
Agencies like Igor pitch new names to companies looking for a change of image. In Steve’s own words, ‘The best way to get 100 people to sign off on a name is to come up with something that has no meaning and offends no one – the surest pathway to vanillacide.’
This example of what used to be called a ‘portmanteau word’, known to linguists as a ‘blend’, is formed by bolting together the suffix of ‘suicide’ (if you think of it as self-destruction) or ‘homicide’ (if you think it’s a crime) and the slang use of ‘vanilla’ meaning insipid, conformist or harmless, which probably began with the gay and feminist movements in the late 1970s.
It’s not only progressives such as Steve Manning who perceive a general tendency in global corporate capitalism towards a deadening uniformity. Insider ironists now refer to ‘blanding’ and ‘blandwidth’. Timid, over-systematised decision-makers are accused scornfully of ‘blanding out’.
Doubts about conformism coincide with growing doubts about the value of using focus groups to test new names, products or services. There is, however, a trick for getting round the play-safe herd instinct displayed by committees or focus groups: it’s sometimes referred to as ‘wild-carding’ and consists of giving your client a list containing your favoured suggestions, plus at least a couple of ultra-radical, even crazy solutions.
In rejecting the most extreme, they are likely to ‘compromise’ on something that is still fairly daring. It might not work for everyone, but the Californian corrective to vanillacide is to junk consensus-seeking and embrace go-with-the-gut antimethodology, or, to use another trendy biz-term, ‘corporate voodoo’.