Fulfilment centre

shutterstock_144468457What is your idea of fulfilment? We are probably all seeking fulfilment in one form or another, whether that means achieving success in our chosen field of activity, having a happy home life or dedicating ourselves to helping others. So I was intrigued when I first heard the term fulfilment centre – added to Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries online this month. It sounds as though it ought to be a happy place, where you can achieve your long-held ambitions and become that better, nobler person you know you had it in you to be. Unless it is actually the headquarters of some sinister cult, where they will brainwash you into parting with all your possessions and your sense of identity.

The truth is somewhat more mundane. A fulfilment centre – or fulfillment center, as we perhaps should spell it, given the American origin of the term – is a huge building packed with goods. Workers, sometimes known as ‘pickers’, go up and down the long aisles to pick items off the shelves and pack and send them to customers. What gets fulfilled in a fulfillment center is not people, but orders. In plain English, it’s a warehouse.

There is a difference, though. OALD defines warehouse as ‘a building where large quantities of goods are stored, especially before they are sent to shops/stores to be sold’. A modern fulfilment centre is a kind of warehouse, but it is one that often deals with sending goods direct to consumers who have ordered them online. The only shop/store involved is a virtual one on the Internet, not a bricks-and-mortar business.

At this point, I could reflect on the materialism of a society that can equate fulfilment with the acquiring of consumer goods. But really that’s just a quirk of the language, where one word can come to mean two such different things. The term does illustrate another curious feature of modern language, though – the tendency to create new, more positive-sounding names for things that are in reality quite humdrum. Here are some more examples – some of them also American in origin. What is the more traditional term in each case?

animal control officer (dogcatcher)

refuse collector/garbage collector (dustman)

correctional facility (prison)

It could well be argued that the more modern terms are preferable because they give dignity to occupations that are necessary but unglamorous. There is often pressure at work or in public life to put a positive spin on the most unpromising circumstances. Thus, in business, we may talk about strengths and opportunities (= strengths and weaknesses). My husband, who is a teacher, likes to say there is no such thing as failure or mistakes, merely learning opportunities. More pernicious is the so-called courtesy call (= annoying and unwanted phone call from a business to a customer), which may even cause the customer to disengage (= angrily slam the phone down). A politician may be obliged to apologize because he misspoke (= lied). But with terms like this we are getting into the territory of euphemisms.

A euphemism is defined as ‘an indirect word or phrase that people often use to refer to something embarrassing or unpleasant, sometimes to make it seem more acceptable than it really is’. The euphemisms themselves can be serious or humorous:

His mother passed away (= died) last year.

Walk before toward the seaside. … I will but look upon the hedge, and follow you. (Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale)

I’ll leave you to work out what Shakespeare really means by ‘look upon the hedge’ in this case!

Sometimes, however, euphemisms have a more questionable purpose, when they are used to disguise the truth about something quite unacceptable. Examples are collateral damage (= the killing of innocent people in war), enhanced interrogation methods (= torture) and rendition (= sending people to be tortured in another country where the laws against it are less strict).

Avoiding embarrassing topics or difficult truths is a natural human tendency. So is poking fun at ourselves for this behaviour. My favourite euphemism? Pre-loved.

Vintage or pre-loved wedding dresses can be just as lovely.

Many schools have a pre-loved uniform service where outgrown items are donated and sold on cheaply.

We buy and sell pre-loved designer fashion.

a pre-loved edition of ‘Pride and Prejudice’

The room was stacked with boxes of pre-loved teddy bears.

This month Diana Lea celebrates 24 years as a dictionary editor at Oxford University Press. Apart from investigating new and unusual words and expressions for Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries online, she finds fulfilment in fell-walking and baking Victoria sponge cakes.

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