Tom Hodgkinson: Can you really have passion for a potato?

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There are quite a few words that make me want to reach for my revolver. One is "yurt", the Mongolian low-cost housing solution-turned-pop festival status symbol. But this week I am going to focus on another term that has me ranting at strangers at bus stops, and that is "passionate".

Strictly speaking, I suppose what gets me going is not the word itself but its misuse and overuse by modern business. I think the rot started with Pret A Manger. In a successful attempt to take a rather pedestrian business concept – sandwich selling – and turn it into something exciting, they came up with the slogan "Passionate about food" in the 1980s.

The first problem with this phrase is grammatical: who, exactly, is "passionate about food"? You can't really say that the shop or the brand is passionate about it, since inanimate entities do not experience feelings. It is also impossible to believe that every single member of staff, including the cleaners, is passionate about food. Well, I suppose it is possible, but it's unlikely.

That leaves, then, the founders or directors. Perhaps they were once genuinely "passionate about food", but with the big business that Pret A Manger has become, it seems just as likely that they are passionate about enormous profits for themselves.

So much for the logical and grammatical problems with the slogan. Then there is the problem of what passionate actually means. The word "passion" has two senses. The first is used to describe Christ's intense suffering as he walked with the cross on his back to his crucifixion. It is derived from the Greek word "pascho" and the Latin "passio", meaning "I suffer".

Can this be the meaning alluded to by Pret, or the host of companies which have since used the word in their marketing communications? One example I saw recently was a manufacturer of potato crisps called Burts. On the packets, they claim to be "passionate about potatoes". Does this mean, then, that the chief executive of Burts would be prepared to be crucified for the sake of a Jersey Royal? Or perhaps that all the factory workers suffer agonies of wailing and gnashing each day as they create crisps?

Yes, all right, it has its origins as a word for intense suffering, but I am aware that over the years its allusions have softened somewhat, and that now it is used to mean "intense emotion" or similar. But even this is surely an exaggeration. "Passion" should be confined to talking about love or the emotions felt upon bereavement.

So the word has moved from describing Christ's suffering to meaning intense emotion to being hijacked as a glib marketing trick. Now young people, when applying for a job, will lie that they are "passionate" about the industry they have chosen to toil for. My accountant, Derek, remembers a young man applying for a job and saying that he was "passionate about accounting". "Well," said Derek, "I don't mind doing accounting but I wouldn't say I was passionate about it."

It's the same everywhere: in the old days you put up with your job; now you are asked to be deeply in love with it to the point of pain. Which, in the case of most jobs, is completely impossible, since most jobs are more or less boring.

All small entrepreneurs now are told that they have to be "passionate" about the product they are selling. But when you think about it, actually being passionate would be a handicap in business: it would cloud your judgement, and one thing that characterises many really successful people in business is that they have practically no interest in their product whatsoever. This is why they can hop from the board of a dog-food company to a TV channel to an airline to a supermarket. What Alan Sugar and Philip Green are passionate about is business, ie making money, and the thing they make money out of is less important. Is Philip Green passionate about women's clothes? Was Alan Sugar ever truly passionate about affordable word processors?

The rot must stop. Can I urge all readers to send examples of the misuse of the word "passion" in modern advertising to me at newreview@independent.co. uk? If we name and shame the culprits, we can root out this abuse of language, logic and grammar, and steal back this beautiful word from the grasping and cynical claws of big business.

'Brave Old World: A Month-by-Month Guide to Husbandry, or the Fine Art of Looking After Yourself', by Tom Hodgkinson, is published by Hamish Hamilton, priced £16.99

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