The Social Function of Creative Language

The social functions of creative language use in everyday interactions.

Creativity is a staple in spoken language and could be considered to be grease for the wheels of social interaction. Creativity in communication ‘is a property actively possessed by all speakers and listeners’ (Carter 2004: 6).1 As a trait possessed by all, many social functions are fulfilled by the use of creative language in everyday interactions. This essay will focus on the social function of language in the workplace.

In the modern workplace, a degree of dehumanisation is common; we are encouraged to conduct ourselves professionally. The nature of workplace communication is dependent on the level of familiarity of those involved, yet communication itself can establish and evolve relationships.

Commonality is key; professionals in their 30s are likely to be established in their field. They are likely to have children, spouses and bills to pay. They will also share common cultural currency – a mutual appreciation of film, TV, video games and music for example. This provides a foundation for creative social interaction. Humour is a significant component of creative language, which makes a mutuality of context all the more important. For example:

‘I’m gonna make like a tree, and leave’ is a recognised idiom, punning on the linguistic similarity of ‘leave’ and ‘leaf’. If a speaker offers ‘I’m gonna make like a tree, and get outta here’ to anybody unfamiliar with the film ‘Back to the Future’, they will probably have to explain the joke.2

There is often a degree of teamwork in workplace interaction. One party might choose a specific turn of phrase, prompting another to respond in a particular way:

Co-worker 1: ‘Back once again…’

Co-worker 2: ‘For the renegade master…’

Co-worker 3: ‘With the ill behaviour.’ 3

Many phrases could have been used to announce one’s return, but the example above was chosen deliberately to engage others in dialogue as well as providing an opportunity to share cultural references. The reinforcement of such points of similarity helps foster a sense of commonality. Psychologists would make reference to mirroring behaviour – the establishment of rapport with people we believe to be like ourselves. Creative workplace language provides opportunities to connect; the sharing of common reference points creating a foundation from which relationships develop.

Workplace language can also take the form of banter; the use of teasing, jokes and insults without intention to cause offence (though some offence is often both intended and taken). The convention provides a rich opportunity for creative use of language. Since the construct is well understood, the participants can use it to build and maintain a relationship; displaying closeness and familiarity.

In the following example, two male colleagues banter around their increasing weight:

M1:    (Nodding toward the chest of M2) ‘Those things are coming along nicely mate, we’ll have to get you a bra soon!’

M2:    (Looking down) ‘Thanks for noticing. And you can talk, pretty sure your trousers are being held up by gravity.’

M1:    (Laughing) ‘Whatever. We’d better get food soon. I can see you eyeing me like a cartoon pork chop!’

Clearly, no one is buying a bra, and nor do humans have appreciable gravity, but the point is well made by both. When M2 accepts the opening premise, the insult is somewhat defused. The initial hyperbole continues with the suggestion M1’s mass is akin to that of a planet; before another dismissal. The exchange closes with a simile and a shared cultural reference – in this instance a familiar cartoon construct. The initiator of this dialogue is working at risk, but individuals engaged in such exchanges usually understand where the boundaries are and what liberties may be taken with them. In the event of misjudgement, the convention both limits scope to take offence and provides the defence of comedy respectively.

Use of creative language in a workplace setting is analogous to guitarists trading licks around a familiar standard. As Dizzy Gillespie said: ‘You spend a lifetime playing music to learn what not to play.’4 And so it is with language. All speakers have a core understanding of language and structure and draw on their knowledge and experience to develop their skills. The result in social workplace dialogue is extended ad lib, calling for the consistent use of creative language to sustain it. These exchanges build relationships based on common cultural contexts, facilitating collaborative practices more generally.

  1. Carter, R. Language and Creativity: The Art of Common Talk. (London: Routledge, 2004) p6
  2. Back to the Future. Film (USA: Universal Pictures, 1984)
  3. Wildchild. Renegade Master, CD (Hi-Life Recordings, 1995)
  4. Gillespie, D. To Be or Not to Bop. (Minnesota: University of Minneapolis Press, 2009) p268


Carter, R. Language and Creativity: The Art of Common Talk (London: Routledge 2004).
Coates, J. and Thornborrow, J. (eds) Sociolinguistics of Narrative (Amsterdam: Benjamins 2005).
Cook, G. ‘Language play in English’, in Maybin, J. and Mercer, N. (eds) Using English: From Conversation to Canon (London: Routledge 1996).
Fischer, O. and Nänny, M. (1999). ‘Iconicity as a Creative Force in Language’. In O. Fischer and M. Nänny (eds.) Form Miming Meaning: Iconicity in Language and Literature (Amsterdam: Benjamins 1999).
Gillespie, D. with Fraser, A. To Be or Not to Bop (Minnesota: University of Minneapolis Press 2009).
Maybin, J. and Swann, J. (2007). ‘Everyday Creativity in Language: Textuality, Contextuality, and Critique’, Applied Linguistics 28 (4).
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs. S.v. “make like a tree and leave.” Retrieved October 23 2016 from
Back to the Future. (1984). Film. USA: Universal Pictures.
Wildchild. Renegade Master. (1995). CD. Hi-Life Recordings.

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