The 69 Words GM Employees Can Never Say

Engineers were supposed to watch their language

General Motors Investigation
AP
George Carlin made his comic reputation with the famous routine, The Seven Words You Can Never Say on TV. The list of words actually became part of a U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing the FCC's regulation of "indecency."

It looks like General Motors put together its own list for employees back in 2008: 69 words and phrases that were not to be used in public presentations, according to the Wall Street Journal. They include: defect, defective, safety, safety related, dangerous, bad, and critical. You know, words that the average person, in the context of the millions of cars that GM has recalled, might understand as indicative of underlying problems at the company. Oh, terribly sorry, "problem" was on the list as well.

The company was trying to tell engineers how to document problems - uh, make that issue, condition, or matter, according to the agreement - with cars as part of the recall process. These were words that were not supposed to be used in memos, emails, or presentations, lest they come back to haunt the company. As they have.

The list was released as part of the recent consent agreement settling legal action by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The slide show in the agreement are part of the fallout from GM's massive safety recalls on 5.3 million vehicles this year alone, according to the Huffington Post. That includes potentially faulty ignition switches on 2.6 million and another 2.7 million whose brake lights could potentially fail.

The slide show was intended to help engineers and other technical personnel understand what they should and shouldn't say when it came to safety recalls. No company likes to leave telltale signs of legal liability that could put smiles on the faces of personal injury and class action attorneys.

Some of the overall advice: "Be factual, not fantastic, in your writing." Also, "writing must always be based only on fact, without judgmental adjectives and speculation." Being "cute or clever" could let someone take something out of context.

In addition to part of the basic vocabulary of concern mentioned above, here are a few of the more colorful terms that GM did not want to see appear:
  • apocalyptic
  • asphyxiating
  • catastrophic
  • Challenger [as in the space shutter that exploded]
  • Cobain [as in the late grunge rocker who took his own life]
  • decapitating
  • evil
  • grenadelike
  • Hindenburg [the zeppelin that exploded in a ball of flame]
  • impaling
  • Kevorkianesque [referring to the doctor famous for allegedly aiding suicides]
  • mangling
  • powder keg
  • rolling sarcophagus (tomb or coffin [as the list further explained])
  • spontaneous combustion
  • Titanic [you probably saw the movie]
  • widow-maker [you probably didn't see that one]
  • you're toast

You might wonder just how bad things looked to the engineers, given that this would be an odd collection of words to pull out of thin air without looking at in-house samples of writing.

If only everyone had known how apt the list could become. Then again, given that brake light - or should that be break light? - problem was known as early as 2008, when the list was compiled, maybe someone at GM was actually thinking ahead.

Click through the slideshow below to check out the full list, which strangely doesn't include the words "uh," and "oh."

Add a Comment

*0 / 3000 Character Maximum

10 Comments

Filter by:
petpetdon

Here is a list of words people should say about GM:
I will NEVER buy another GM product.
GM and UAW in bed thieves.

June 02 2014 at 12:13 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Bob

The reason so many people now say "issue" when they mean "problem" is that Microsoft forbade the use of the word "problem" in dealing with any customer complaints. Their products simply did not have "problems". Thus we have millions of people talking about "issues" today when they are really talking about problems.

May 23 2014 at 9:45 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Scott

"Kevorkianesque [referring to the doctor famous for allegedly aiding suicides]"

Hold up, call the editor, what was "alleged" about Kervokian's role in assisted suicide? He not only admitted it, he advocated it, videotaped himself doing it (for broadcast on 60 minutes), and was convicted for it.

May 21 2014 at 7:15 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Rod

I worked as a supplier of services for GM and later served on committees with members of their staff. One hand rarely knew what the other was doing. GM was and probably remains a "good ole boy" bureaucracy and we know how members of a bureaucracy hate admitting mistakes. The best way to avoid mistakes is by doing nothing and there was plenty of that at GM. There was also a lot of “teamwork” meaning head nodding at bad ideas (plenty of that at Chrysler, too). The stories I heard from GM employees about sloppiness, lack of supervision and management, and union work rules agreed to by the company were stunning. Bailing out this anachronism of a company was a large error. Better to have allowed it declare bankruptcy and start over with a new business plan, but with different management.

May 21 2014 at 3:29 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Rod's comment
hsenpfeffer

The whining about unions and union work rules gets old especially from salestrash that do nothing but spend the day drunk on the golf course, telling lies, slapping each other on the back and whining about lazy union guys. The union members took a huge hit on wages while the management and salestrash walked away unhurt. And after the bank bailout debacle the GM bailout was minor especially considering that the biggest problem was due to losses in the GMAC finance arm. Time to start chopping salestrash and finance scammers which are the real problems in the country.

May 28 2014 at 11:18 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to hsenpfeffer's comment
bruce

finance scammers i believe are bad, but sales people not so much. could it just be that someone makes more money than you while doing less physical labor? i admire that and that is how i plan on living my life. using my talents to earn money and not physical labor. because it really does not take any extra skill to be a human being and use your body for work.

May 29 2014 at 1:13 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down
bruce

finance scammers i believe are bad, but sales people not so much. could it just be that someone makes more money than you while doing less physical labor? i admire that and that is how i plan on living my life. using my talents to earn money and not physical labor. because it really does not take any extra skill to be a human being and use your body for work. and by the way unions hurt progress and protect the poor's pockets.

May 29 2014 at 1:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down
Theta Tau Man

As a former auto-industry engineer, at a Tier 1 supplier, I can say we had a similar list, only much shorter and less colorful. Since I was working on structural components, the only one which proved difficult or odd to work around was that we were not allowed to use the word "failure" or other derivatives of "fail". Why this posed difficulty is that, in structural engineering terms, one tests parts "to ultimate failure," or one might report that the part "failed at a load of xxxx." Neither of these statements mean that there is something wrong, just that that is the load where the part actually broke; if that measured load was higher than the specification then the part passed the test. The lawyers were concerned that a non-technical jury wouldn't understand that, however.

May 20 2014 at 2:18 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
mapoftazifosho

Wow, that's poorly written and inaccurate.

"The slide show was intended to help engineers and other technical personnel understand what they should and shouldn't say when it came to safety recalls. No company likes to leave telltale signs of legal liability that could put smiles on the faces of personal injury and class action attorneys."

The intent of this presentation was to get non-engineers to give better feedback to engineers that didn't include these words as it's unproductive and creates a negative atmosphere.

May 20 2014 at 12:46 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Alan

"brake light - or should that be brake light?" - wordplay works better if the homonyms used aren't the same word. :) I think the second phrase was meant to be "break light".

May 20 2014 at 12:11 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Search Articles

Top Companies Hiring

Week of Sep 28 - Oct 5
View All

Picks From the Web