General Motors' List Of 69 Dirty Words Employees Shouldn't Say

May 19, 2014

Someone wiser than us -- possibly Anthony Weiner, possibly Mark Foley -- once said that love is fleeting, but the internet is forever. We think it's time to update that saying to include email, data servers, and Microsoft Office documents.

To prove it, we point to the recent unveiling of a General Motors presentation made to employees in 2008. The slideshow not only acknowledges the long-lasting nature of digital information, but also suggests ways that employees can avoid incriminating themselves and GM by not using words like "catastrophic" and "spontaneous combustion" when talking about GM products.

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The presentation was released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which acquired it during the agency's investigation of GM's "Switchgate" recall. It was initially presented to GM employees in 2008 as a kind of overview about recalls -- what causes them, how to handle them, and how to discuss them. 

Much of the document is fairly technical, focusing on a range of problems that can arise in vehicles, how to assess those problems efficiently and effectively, and how to repair them. But around page 33, the document veers into a discussion of "Documentation Guidelines", or, paraphrased, how engineers and others should write about potential vehicle problems when notifying their superiors. GM asks employees to "Write smart" and to avoid "judgmental adjectives and speculation".

GM goes on to say that there "aren't really any secrets in this company.... For anything you say or do, ask yourself how you would react if it were reported in a major newspaper or on television". GM also tells its employees to avoid being "cute or clever" in their writing: "The words you choose could be taken out of context to suggest you meant something much worse than what was intended."

Translation: "We know things can leak. And if they do, we want to ensure that they don't reflect poorly on us."

All that makes good sense -- especially when dealing with potentially life-threatening problems involved in recall situations. The wrong word or phrase, taken out of context or read by a less-sympathetic party, could easily make GM look callous, negligent, or worse.

To make sure there are no misunderstandings, the presentation includes a list of 69 dirty words and phrases that should be avoided by employees in their writing. (Is the number itself an inside joke? Who knows?) The list includes terms both innocuous and potentially incriminating, like:

  • always
  • annihilate
  • apocalyptic
  • asphyxiating
  • Challenger
  • Cobain [ed. note: WTF?]
  • Corvair-like
  • decapitating
  • disemboweling
  • eviscerated
  • genocide
  • Hindenburg
  • Kevorkianesque
  • mutilating
  • never
  • potentially-disfiguring [sic]
  • rolling sarcophagus (tomb or coffin)
  • widow-maker
  • you’re toast

As one of our colleagues pointed out, whoever whipped up that list of dirty words unintentionally created an outstanding new Facebook quiz: "GM recall words or death-metal band name?" Cataclysmic Cobain could go either way.

You can read the full PDF here. The presentation starts on page 20, with the "Documentation Guidelines" beginning on page 33. 


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