Our language is vibrant and flexible, constantly changing as it reflects the changing nature of the world it describes. Communication has always been enriched by varieties of slang, for example, and by the emergence of new words and phrases that sometimes refer to a new reality, and at other times present a new way of expressing something which is already established.
While relishing the colour and vividness of newly-coined expressions, it’s good to be aware of what they actually refer to. If we buy into the neat-sounding phrase or the cool neologism and accept it at face value, we may be accepting practices which we don’t whole-heartedly endorse and which could stand a little more scrutiny.
We usually use the word ‘wardrobe’ to describe the cupboard in which we keep our clothes, or to refer to our own collection of clothes. In more recent years, the noun has been turned into a verb. For example, in a 1954 edition of Billboard, a production was praised for its good wardrobing. That’s quite nice, really. ‘Love the wardrobing!’ we could say to a friend who has pulled together a particularly stylish look.
But there’s a newer application of the word, which seems to date from at least thirteen years ago. It is now used to describe the practice of buying a garment from a shop, wearing it to an event, then returning it ‘unworn’ for a full refund.
Of course people have always done this. Way back in the day, when Marks & Spencer in the UK was renowned for its generous returns policy, there used to be stories about staff finding confetti in the pockets of returned garments. These anecdotes created a bit of a laugh and an indrawn breath at the cheek of the perpetrator, coupled with a sliver of unwilling admiration at their chutzpah. But in general, it was thought to be a bit off, something you wouldn’t boast about doing.
This practice has now become a ‘thing’ to be debated, discussed, justified. Fair enough. It’s good to keep scrutinising our behaviour and interrogating our motives. So we can read about how wardrobing is ‘the sneaky way for a girl to stay stylish’. It’s the new fashion, we are told.
We can find tips and amusing articles on how to ‘wardrobe’ successfully, which include advice on avoiding red wine spillage, and constantly changing your appearance if you are a serial returner to the same store. We can discuss the social pressure to be fashionable which may lead to such behaviour. We can make up our own minds about what we think. But when we discuss the issue, we could try to use words which relate to what it is.
‘Wardrobing’ is an easy word to use. It has a bit of dash to it. But it is a misleading term which comes nowhere near describing the practice it refers to. Wardrobing has been identified as one example of return fraud, but we’re unlikely to apply that phrase. ‘I did a spot of return fraud to get an outfit for the party’ is telling it like it is, but may not play well in every context.
You could try ‘unilateral renting’ which might be a closer description, but still masks the shabby nature of the deed. Maybe there isn’t a succinct way of saying it — but that doesn’t matter. Better to be clunky and long-winded than to use words which disguise rather than communicate meaning, or which sanitise grubby behaviour.
What does the word ‘gig’ mean to you? Jane Austen fans might recognise it as a nifty light two-wheeled carriage, typically driven by young single men before they had to succumb to the equivalent of a family estate car. And of course, we’ve been going to music gigs, one-night musical entertainments, forever. So the word is associated with rather enjoyable activities, with freedom and speed. It has an independent, carefree ring to it.
But following the financial crash in 2008, when unemployment led to an increase in people juggling several part-time jobs, we have assimilated a new use for the word. Welcome to the Gig Economy. The expression refers to a way of working which we used to call freelance, or perhaps independent.
Instead of being employed by a person or company, and receiving a regular wage or salary, freelancers are paid by the job and are not tied down to a particular employer. The freelance life is typically associated with people in the creative industries, with consultants and advisers and tech workers.
While the meaning of ‘freelance’ is clear, the application of ‘gig’ to the range of occupations it refers to is ambiguous and misleading. The racy feel of the word puts a positive spin on casual employment.
Of course there are pros and cons for working in this system, but the expression ‘Gig Economy’ evokes a world of choice and flexibility which flatters those who have the ability to work from anywhere, to use coffee shops as offices and feel that they have control of developing their careers in their chosen areas.
These positives mean nothing to the person struggling to make the requisite amount of deliveries for the day, or the person on the early morning bus or tram starting their first shift — sorry, gig — of the day.
The nature of work is changing, and ‘gigging’ is on the increase, but even cool jazz musicians led hard and precarious lives. Everyone in this system is affected by its lack of certain rights and benefits, and everyone is open to exploitation. There is movement to redress these wrongs, but in the meantime, we could be cautious about the term ‘Gig Economy’ and any other slick phrase or soundbite which encourages us to disregard unpalatable truths.