We need to talk about jargon

When I was a student and green in judgement, I thought, foolishly, that the purpose of language is to communicate meaning. I was wrong. That’s part of it, certainly, but it has many other purposes as well.

Language, and the way we use it, is a social indicator. People who have a shared purpose, or  come from the same social class, usually have a shared language. Recently I read an interview with the head of a new academy in London. He said that mid morning break would cease, and lessons would run straight through till lunchtime.The interviewer asked him how children could get a drink mid morning, and his reply was ” Pupils will be able to self-hydrate during the teaching process” which means, in English that the kids could have a swig of juice during double maths. What he was really saying was ” Education is a complex process, with its own language, which is far too complex for snotty journalists to understand.” He was using language as a barrier, not a gateway.

Sometimes jargon starts as an imaginative use of language and ends in a cliche. How about “level playing field”- as opposed to those sixty degree playing fields where the players have to rope themselves together before taking a kick. Or ” across the piste`” which takes you to blue skies and crisp snow and away from deciding which internet provider you will choose. Or what about “roll out” as in ” the roll-out of a new government initiative” – do you know where it comes from ? The aviation industry. It refers to rolling the latest superjumbo out of the hangar. Well..maybe it was a bit clever once…but now..it’s a mega cliche.

But the worst kind of jargon is the stuff which is just gobbledygook. When Theresa May says ” I am clear” – which she does every five minutes – it means nothing. If it means anything at all, it means ” I know” – and if you do know, why do you have to tell everyone about it ?

“Going forward” – need I say more. It is a waste of breath, a mouth filler which gives you time to find out what you want to say next.

But the one which really bugs me is “unacceptable” – it’s a mean, weaselly, milk-and-water word. A magistrate who says ” Your behaviour his unacceptable” to the crim in the dock is dodging the moral element. If he belted an old lady over the head it’s not just unacceptable, it’s downright wrong.

It is time for my lunch. I shall self-hydrate during the eating process and watch the tv news which will update me on the latest roll-outs across the piste. I am clear about this.

Quantum theory for cats



You know what ? English just got lazier.

Like an amateur virologist, I’m always on the lookout for little bugs of language which infect the public domain. Do you remember upspeak ? That irritating, childish way of putting a question mark at the end of each sentence ? Thank goodness,it’s largely died out ? I’m glad you don’t often hear it anymore ?

(Get a grip man! Get a grip !)

I’ve found a couple of new bugs, swilling around at the bottom of my test tube. You know what ? The first one is “You know what ?” It’s a world weary way of putting someone in their place. It prefaces a statement of the bleeding obvious that everyone with half a brain should understand. It’s sarcastic, pompous …and proliferating by the minute.

I can excuse Mark Kermode, the film critic, for using it. He does cagey, ironic, like no-one else. But I was shocked to hear John Humphries use it on the Today programme the other day. Big Humph, Guardian of the English Language Flame and Scourge of Scurvy Politicians. Tsk..tsk.

I like that.Tsk tsk…but I digress

Resilient. Good word. Strong.Real world. Think steel sheet. Think Nelson’s flagship, battered by French cannon balls, but bouncing back. You don’t think car parking regulations, employment contracts,confidentiality agreements. They all have ” inbuilt resilience.” I am so re-assured.

“And what about “robust” ? Every time there is a disaster, a debacle, a fracas or just an administrative cockup, there’s some poor sap in front of the news cameras, and they always say the same thing ” We now have robust procedures in place to ensure that this never happens again” No ! Really ? That’s ok then.

There is a new bug on the block. I’ve only heard it a couple of times, but I suspect it could become an epidemic.

” Here’s the thing”

I can’t work out what it means. What thing ? Where is it ? Is it a big thing ? Can I see it ? It’s telling you that something is there…and I’ll let you know what it is in a minute. If you say ” I’m going to talk to you today about house bricks” and then reach under the lectern , take out a brick and hold it up, THEN you can say ” Here’s the thing.” But not before.

I note that Ed Millipede is an early adopter, so it’s bound to be a success.

Finally “issues” or rather ” Ishooz.” OK it’s been a portmanteau word for years, but I came across a wonderful useage yesterday, on the website of ” Rialto”- a highbrow magazine. I leave you with this gem:

” We have had an issue with a few of our magazines.”

Inhabiting the words

From ClipboardDid you see Obama’s inauguration speech ? What did you think ?

At first sight it was  tall man in a winter coat, reading to quarter of a million people from a teleprompt. But it was a lot more than that.

Think of the challenge. How do you connect to a huge crowd- with a nation behind them, watching on tv ? He did it in a number of ways. First the speech itself.

It was pared down, precise without being simplistic. He used “we” a lot. This meant every American alive now, every one who lived in the past and will live in the future. He was setting out the context.

He put forward a programme that no-one in their right mind could argue with-equality of gender and sexual preference, environmental awareness, health care , talking to your enemies before you start bombing them- all presented in a concise, unambiguous way. And he asked for support from the whole country; he was tapping into the essential compassion and common sense which is still  part of American society.

He was  realistic. This won’t happen today. Some of it won’t happen at all. But we have to try. Small victories are still victories, and we must be grateful for them.

Then came the steady drumbeat of “ We, the people”- he meant the American nation now- the huge and disparate community which has such power in the world- but he was also reaching back to the American Constitution and that blaze of hope and optimism that flared up at the end of the eighteenth century.

It was a beautifully written speech- I’m sure he didn’t write it- but I’m also sure that he had a  big  hand in its creation.

The end was about oaths we take. Promises we make to each other.A  huge nation bound together by promises……

You could say “Sure- sounded great- so it should. He must have rehearsed it dozens of times” And I’m sure that’s true- but that didn’t make it any less sincere. He inhabited every sentence, every phrase.

The voice helped him- strong, calm- controlled. You always have the feeling that he’s holding something back.It’s taking an effort- but he’s not going to bleed all over the carpet. I like this because it’s a very British thing. Obama is master of the American Stiff Upper Lip.

And the silences. To start with, it’s a matter of politeness. Once you’ve hit a key line, then stop, and let the audience take it in. And that’s what he did. After each repetition of “We, the people” the silence got longer ,and longer. You could see the message soaking in.Us. We. The people…..

I’m a Brit, and it made me weep. It touched me in the same way that Shakespeare’s “band of brothers” speech in “Henry V.”

It was real. It was human.

It was poetry.