Words that should be banned: hydration


One of the downsides of living in a western industrialised nation is that you’re constantly being bombarded with mendacious marketing messages by charlatans trying to sell you something that’s free, abundant and available on tap – literally. The chief way they do it is to suggest that bottled water offers health benefits that mere tap water can’t offer. I guess it makes us all feel a little less squeamish about paying for something we’re given for free when people across whole swathes of the planet are dying of thirst every day.

Hydration for body and soul

Take the clever marketing bods at Volvic, who as the label above reveals, urge you:

To fill your body with deep volcanic hydration.

Just drink 1.5l of Volvic everyday for 14 days to hydrate your body and mind and help them function better.

Clever. Where tap water would simply quench your thirst, this liquid offers “deep volcanic hydration”, whatever that means. (If anyone can tell me why water from a volcano is better for your health than water from a tap, please say in the comments.)

Ah, perhaps it’s that volcanic water doesn’t just hydrate the body – but the “mind” too. In what way a person’s consciousness and intellect can be combined chemically with water (which is the dictionary definition of “hydrate”), I’m not sure. But I think they missed a trick here. Why stop with the mind? Heck, I want my very soul hydrated.

(Perhaps they felt the need to offer something more than that sports drink that’s advertised under the tagline “hydrates you better than water”. I repeat: the dictionary definition of “hydrate” is “to combine chemically with water”. Ergo, it’s not possible for any other compound to hydrate you better than water.)

Thirst – a sign of disease

This fetishisation of hydration seems to be common to all marketing of bottled water – and it’s invariably accompanied by the pathologising of thirst.

The following is typical, from the website of Buxton Water:

The symptoms of dehydration are tiredness, lack of interest and a low level of concentration. It can also make us feel very thirsty.

Tiredness, lack of interest and a low level of concentration are symptoms of lots of things. Being depressed. Having a hideously dull job that you hate.

In fact, are they even symptoms? Or are they slightly nebulous feelings? Isn’t tiredness just a “symptom” of being tired?

Lack of interest and low concentration? I’d say they were pretty symptomatic of being bored.

Notice, too, how actual “thirst” has become relegated to the status of afterthought: “dehydration can also make us feel very thirsty”.

The implication seems to be that you don’t need to feel thirsty to be suffering from dehydration (when, in fact, feeling thirsty is pretty much the first sign you need to drink something).

Dehydration - it's like chlamydia

This idea that thirst is the last in a long list of “symptoms” indicating dehydration is a common meme propagated by bottled water companies. The website of Aqua Pura, for example, tells readers that “by the time you feel thirsty, there is already a water shortage in your body”.

Isn’t that rather like saying that by the time you feel hungry, there’s already a food shortage in your body?

Rather than being your body’s natural way of telling you to have a drink, “thirst” has become the final symptom in a list of worrying signs that you need to be constantly (some might say neurotically) on the look out for.

Like chlamydia, thirst, it seems, is a silent disease that needs to be caught before symptoms appear.

Natural Hydration Council - a hallowed seat of learning?

In order to propogate and convince us all of such spurious claims, Nestle, Danone and Highland Spring have set up a trade body for the bottled water industry, called the Natural Hydration Council (NHC).

“Unnatural” hydration being what exactly? And don’t you just love that clever use of the word “council”, implying as it does a democratically elected group of impartial advisers who have our best interests at heart.

Incidentally, on its website, the NHC also describes itself as an “authoritative industry organisation”, an “institution” (how ancient-sounding, how grand!) and “a not for profit company” (ahem, created by three very-much-for-profit companies).

It’s also “governed by a Council and guided by a scientific advisory panel to authorise and validate peer reviewed academic research and studies.”

Phew! Those folks at Imperial College, London had better watch out.

"Information" about hydration

But where the NHC really excels is in its strapline, which is possibly the most cleverly mendacious bit of copy I’ve ever come across. It is “Informing customer choice”.

Sounds innocuous at first, doesn’t it? As if their goal is “informing customers”. Indeed, their website tells us that their objective is to enable consumers to “make an informed choice about natural bottled water and hydration in their diet”.

They’re implying that of course, but look carefully. The direct object in this sentence isn’t the customer, but the abstract noun “choice”.

Now, abstract nouns can’t be “informed” in the primary sense of the word of to “tell” or “instruct”.

So the strapline is using “inform” in its secondary meaning, which is something like to “permeate” or to “shape” (as in “this blog is informed by a passion for clear English”).

In other words, despite their claims to academic rigour and disinterest, the information they provide is biased.

It’s not as if we hadn’t already guessed as much, but the ability to exploit the resonances of the word “inform” in this way suggests the kind of sensitivity to language that’s the preserve of the talented copywriter.

I’m reluctantly impressed.