23 June 2008

A spruik too far?

A what too far, you ask? 'Spruik' is an Australian verb that crops up in the print media in that country with surprising regularity, and it means 'to promote a thing or idea to another person, in order that they buy the thing, or accept the idea' (Source: Wiktionary). It's pronounced sprook. 'Spruiking' is a genuine Australian curiosity, and an interesting one too. No-one's quite sure how it arose, but its first recorded appearance in Australia was in 1902, so it has some pedigree.

A simple Google News search for the word 'spruik' shows it appearing in 179 news items (YMMV), from the Sydney Morning Herald to the Dubbo Daily Liberal (and before you ask, no, that's not a joke), and all of the appearances were in Australian publications, although the A Word A Day archive does list an appearance in the Times from 2004.

I've recently noticed it creeping into more common usage in the New Zealand Herald. The most recent appearance was on 21 June in an article by the Herald's business writer Fran O'Sullivan, who seems to be rockin' the Jenny Shipley look these days if her byline picture is anything to go by. In it, she wrote:

...Picture a New Zealand where rolling tax cuts, possibly even indexed to inflation, become the norm just like in Australia. National leader John Key and his deputy, Bill English, are spruiking that vision to business audiences as they continue to spurn all attempts by the Finance Minister to entice them to engage with him in Parliament on his recent Budget.


O'Sullivan's implied salivation aside, the Herald seems to use the 'spruiking' word sporadically. Plugging 'spruik' into the Herald search function (which is admittedly not the soundest research technique, given its limitations) throws up a handful of previous appearances. O'Sullivan has used it once before in a November 2007 article on Canadian infrastructure investors, while Deborah Hill Cone used it in an October 2007 article on the topic of business writing itself. (She also managed to shoe-horn in the word 'spondulicks', which just goes to show that business writers must get a bit weary of thinking up synonyms for money. And actually there's no 'k' in 'spondulics', although I don't think you'll find many people willing to argue particularly strenuously about it). The only other listed appearance is a February 2006 telecoms story by Paul McIntyre, but it's on Telstra, an Australian topic.

As I mentioned, the Herald's search function is not wholly reliable; it didn't manage to spot the 21 June O'Sullivan article. But it seems to indicate that it's a word that appears in the writing of the Herald's business reporters, and that it gets past the paper's sub-editors. And the Herald is of course part of an Australian media stable, APN News & Media. Does this mean the Herald is using an Australian style guide, or is the familiarity of the Herald's writers with Australian business writing mean that they occasionally throw in a 'spruik' here and there?

I've always been interested in how our language evolves and mutates with common usage, and perhaps this is an example of a new introduced species attempting to gain a foothold in New Zealand English.

Admittedly this is not a big issue. But if I was given a choice, I'd like to think that newspaper journalists would stick to the basic rule that the vocabulary used in their stories should be informative and not obstructive, and that they should avoid jargon and unfamiliar words and phrases unless they perform demonstrably better than the existing vocabulary. From a personal perspective the word appears rather inelegant too. Using 'spruiking' in the New Zealand context seems gimmicky to me, and it begs the question, do the Herald's readers know the meaning of the word when it's used?
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