Why journalists should avoid the word ‘collective’

Say the word “collective” to people of a certain age, and for many it will bring to mind the Soviet Union, Communist China, or “communes,” with either a negative or hippie vibe.

So it was jarring for a columnist of a certain age to see an email from Sheraton Hotels asking people to join its “collective,” described as “a global community for travelers worldwide, welcoming everyone to share in our story.”

As a marketing term, “collective” has legs. The fashion company Net-a-Porter unveiled its “Colombian Collective,” WWD reported, “clothing and accessories from designers firmly anchored in the roots and culture of their native of Colombia.” The article continued: “The retailer has picked up a lot of designers from the South American country as of late which organically led von der Goltz to the ideation of a collective theme.” (We think that means “because the retailer found a lot of Colombian designers, their global buying director got the idea of putting together a collection.”)

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“Collective” is often used by groups of artists who gather in a group space, like the “Bare Hand Collective” in Pensacola, Florida, or the 30-year-old “Artists Collective” in Hartford, Connecticut.

But “collective” appears far more frequently as adjective or as a noun phrase than as a noun all by itself. “Collective bargaining” means using the power of a large group to bargain on behalf of that group. Does that make that group a “collective”? In this case, it’s probably a “union.” We have the “collective unconscious,” Jung’s theory that we have innate human knowledge shared across generations. Are we humans a “collective”? We’re not that together.

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Here’s an indication of how “collective” is usually used: a letter to the editor that managed to use the word “collective” eight times in 218 words, only once as a standalone noun.

Using the noun “collective” to describe a community of like-minded people, the way both Sheraton and Net-a-Porter are, smacks of historical amnesia. In the Soviet era of Josef Stalin, individual farms and farmers were forced together into “collectives,” the idea being that group labor would be more productive than individual labor. That “collectivization” also blunted the political and economic power of the “peasant farmers,” which may have been its true purpose, especially given some of its disastrous outcomes. The word “collective” gained the negative connotations of forcing people to work together. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation for “collective” as a standalone noun outside of grammatical or colloquial use is from The Nation in 1925, referring to the Soviet “collective farms.”

In China in the late 1950s, “collectives” were organized into larger groups, called “communes,” which began as “collection”  of “collective farms,” and then became “multipurpose organizations for the direction of local government and the management of all economic and social activity.” Also controlled by the state.

The terms “collective” and “commune” were softened some in the ‘60s and ‘70s in the United States, when people started communities of shared living and labor, often off the grid or away from society. These were positive groupings of people, though they were not always viewed so kindly. (They may be making a comeback.) And in Israel, a “kibbutz” is also a “collective,” a communal farm or settlement, with mostly positive connotations.

Regardless of its history, the noun “collective” is being revived to mean a group of people with like-minded experiences or goals. For example, at Kent State University, a new group called the “KSU Collective” calls itself a media-based group, but seems to emphasize fashion and the arts, keeping with the use of “collective” in the arts.

In Birmingham, Alabama, a local businessman announced a software-as-a-service company called “Biso Collective.” He said he “included the word ‘collective’ based on the definition: ‘a cooperative enterprise marked by similarity among the members of the group.’” No hint of forced labor there.

And Ugg brand seems to want to have it all. Its “Ugg Collective” is “a group of real people who embody our values and the spirit of California. They are artists, surfers, writers, activists, and free spirits, and in telling their stories, we tell our own.” A “collective” of people marketing a “collective” group of products.

We’re not sure a line of clothing can be a “collective,” but marketing and advertising can do what they want if consumers buy into it. Journalists, though, should shun “collective” unless the context is clear, and stay with “collection,” “group” or some other, er, “collective” noun. The lessons of history inform the connotations of today.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.