English under threat from verbal sandbagging
Is English being choked to death by jargon? The world’s most popular language is descending into a nightmare of meaningless baloney and hot air, one top writer claimed yesterday.
It had been a long day for the junior NHS doctor. Now that cases of Covid-19 had fallen, there was a huge backlog of other patients to deal with. Exhausted, she was about to turn off her computer and head for home when a link to a document called “Glossary A to Z” caught her eye. As she read it, a look of bafflement spread across her face.
The document contained a list of expressions. “Allyship” was one; “lived experience” was another. If the words were confusing, the definitions were even more so: “power over” apparently meant “The overt ability to use relational or positional power to shape events, frequently viewed as negative, but arguably sometimes of positive use.”
She did recognise some of the terms, such as “virtue signalling” and “identity politics”. But what did they have to do with saving lives?
To others, the document was worse than irrelevant: it was dangerous and divisive, providing definitions that were politically biased. Stephen Pollard, the editor of the Jewish Chronicle, called it “chilling in what it reveals about the mindset within an important part of the NHS”. Such was the outcry that it has now been removed from public view.
But to Janan Ganesh of the Financial Times, the incident was symptomatic of a wider problem: the “constant seepage” of jargon into everyday language.
One example he gives is the verb “to centre”. Its basic definition is simple enough: to move an object into the middle of a physical space. But a few years ago people started to talk about centring themselves – meaning to do something calming in a moment of stress. And now they are using it to mean something completely different: making someone or something more important than they should be.
“At some point,” he writes, “this kind of ambiguity stops being proof of a supple and textured language. It becomes the mark of an unusable one”.
Traditionally, he notes, there have been two arguments against jargon. One is aesthetic: nobody with a feeling for language would use an expression as clumsy as “virtue-signalling” when “sanctimonious” is available as a mellifluous alternative. Nor would they say “call out” instead of “denounce”.
The second argument, put forward by George Orwell, is that jargon is politically insidious. Despotic regimes, left-wing and right-wing alike, love it as a way of twisting the truth. A prime example is the Chinese government’s use of “vocational training camps” to describe prisons where Uighurs are reportedly tortured and brainwashed.
Janan Ganesh acknowledges that languages should not become fossilised. Today, however, “The pace and obscurity of lexicographic change could mire English in the one thing a language of commerce, science and diplomacy cannot survive: confusion.”
“I used to think it a blessing that English never had its own Académie Française,” he concludes. “I now wonder.”
Is English being choked to death by jargon?
Some say, yes. Every world has its own special language, which is often useful to those in it while incomprehensible to everyone else. The problem today is that such jargon is spreading more and more into everyday speech. It is hard enough for native English speakers to make sense of it; for those trying to learn English as a second language, it is virtually impossible.
Others argue that languages are ultimately shaped by people who know how to use them properly, such as writers and orators. All jargon is a fad which by definition becomes outdated after a while. English is a robust, flexible language that can accommodate any amount of change; having survived for hundreds of years in a form we recognise, there is no reason it should not continue to do so.
- What is the most mellifluous word you know?
- Should medicine ever have a political dimension?
- Divide into teams to play Call My Bluff. Each player chooses an obscure word from the dictionary and supplies three definitions, two of which are false. The opposing team then has to decide which one is correct.
- In pairs, research the meaning of the terms in the illustration and write a letter using all of them. Then write a second version of it in plain English.
Some People Say...
“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible.”George Orwell (1903 – 1950), English novelist
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- It is generally agreed that George Orwell played a vital role in alerting the world to the dangers of political jargon. His essay Politics and the English Language is a brilliant statement of this idea. The totalitarian state in his novel 1984 uses a language called Newspeak, in which many words are given a meaning opposite to the real one: the Ministry of Truth, for example, is responsible for falsifying historical records.
- What do we not know?
- One main area of debate is around whether the Plain English Campaign can do anything to halt the spread of jargon. Dating from 1979, when its founder publicly shredded hundreds of official documents outside the Houses of Parliament, it advises government departments and other organisations on how to put information out as clearly as possible. It has awarded its Crystal Mark, approving the level of clarity, to over 23,000 documents produced by more than 1,600 organisations.
- An alphabetical list of words with explanations for them. In Greek “glossa” means tongue.
- Unconcealed. It derives from the French word “ouvert”.
- Words or expressions used by a special group of people or particular profession.
- Unclear meaning. In Latin “ambi” means “on both sides”.
- Concerned with beauty. An aesthete is someone obsessed with beautiful things.
- Pleasing to the ear. Its literal meaning is “flowing like honey”.
- Treacherous. It comes from the Latin word for an ambush.
- Tyrannical. Historically, a despot was a Christian ruler who paid allegiance to the Ottoman Empire.
- To do with dictionaries, which are also known as lexicons.
- Académie Française
- A body dating from 1635 which rules on what is or is not acceptable in the French language.