For almost 20 years, I’ve been waging a fierce battle over the English language with a giant multinational company.

My enemy has been Subway and we’ve been fighting about a seemingly insignificant five-letter word.

I like Subway: the food is nutritious, convenient and good value. However, I get irritated when the staff ask me if I want my order “toasted” or (wait for it) “fresh”.

The implication is that fresh is the opposite of toasted. It’s not: untoasted is the opposite of toasted.

So why would Subway use the wrong word in its sales script?

The reason is that Subway wants to brainwash its customers. Ingeniously, Subway has even found a way to get the public to cooperate in this vast mind-control exercise.

Whenever patrons ask for “fresh” subs, they plant the idea in their own mind that Subway’s food is, indeed, fresh. Millions of people around the world do this every month.

That’s why, whenever I’m asked if I want my sandwich “toasted or fresh”, I make eye contact with the staff and pointedly reply that I’d like it “untoasted”.

I’d love to say they understand how clever and subversive I’m being, but they never do.

Still, I can live with that, because I resent the idea that I should become an unpaid member of Subway’s marketing team.

(For the same reason, I refuse to call stadiums by their sponsors’ names. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the Sydney Football Stadium, not Allianz Stadium; it’s Lang Park, not Suncorp Stadium; it’s Hindmarsh Stadium, not Coopers Stadium.)

Sadly, none of my friends have joined my fight with Subway. Some of them think I’m being a trifle precious and pedantic; others have the nerve to suggest I’m wrong.

I’m not.

Here’s why:

  • A piece of bread that’s left on a table for a year is neither toasted nor fresh
  • A piece of bread that’s taken out of a baker’s oven is both toasted and fresh

So toastiness and freshness are two unrelated concepts.

The point of this rant is that words matter, and that smart businesses use words to their advantage.

That’s why, instead of employing ‘staff’, Subway employs ‘sandwich artists’ and Apple employs ‘geniuses’.

That’s why insurance companies sell ‘life insurance’ rather than ‘death insurance’.

Coincidentally, a friend recently asked if I could suggest a more evocative job title for him than ‘mortgage broker’. I proposed ‘finance expert’, ‘finance director’ and ‘lending director’ – not brilliant, but definitely an improvement.

My friend understood that by using better words, we can plant more favourable thoughts in our clients’ minds.

Does your business actively search for better words? If not, why not?

As painful as it is to admit, Subway is a great example of how businesses can use English to their advantage. Still, I will never give up my fight with Subway, no matter how stale it gets.

[Bonus read: Sorry, people, but I’m calling you on your bullshit]