Some key learnings about the debasement of language
I admit it: I’m in danger of being a language bore.
I’m that guy who, when you say you’re ‘honing in’ on something, asks derisively if you’ve ever heard of a honing pigeon or a honing missile.
If you call me a ‘font of information’, I’m liable to take offence on the grounds that a font is a shallow bowl used for church christenings, and I’d rather be a fount, thank you.
And I’m watching with regret as the word ‘disinterested’ gradually loses its original meaning – ‘unbiased by personal involvement or advantage; not influenced by selfish motives’ – and becomes synonymous with ‘uninterested’.
Language was bound to be important to me, admittedly. I took a degree in English language and literature at university, and I’ve made my living by talking and writing in English for the last thirty-five years, so I have an interest purely as a craftsman.
But over time, I’ve come to the view that the importance of language goes deeper: that the way we use language can affect the way we think and act, and that if the misuse of language is pervasive enough, it will infect society itself.
George Orwell was one of the first to say this. In his essay ‘Politics And The English Language’, he writes: “Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely”.
Orwell identified a series of linguistic crimes which made writing dull, ambiguous, or plain misleading.
He deplored what he called ‘dying metaphors’, (cliches), pretentious diction, and meaningless abstractions.
Orwell put it another way in his most famous novel, 1984, by creating a debased language, Newspeak, and describing a society in which the language has been so squeezed and reduced that the very thought of its citizens has been crushed – because they no longer have words in which they can express freedom or opposition.
Don Watson, whose new book I have been looking through, is doing his best to carry on in the Orwell tradition.
I say ‘looking through’ because ‘Bendable Learnings’ (out later this week) is not the kind of book you can read for long without being taken by an almost uncontrollable desire to hurl it across the room.
You get the flavour from the title. What are “learnings” anyway? It’s a word used exclusively in management jargon, and apparently invented by someone who had never heard the word “lessons”.
This sort of jargon is taking over, and as Watson argued in a piece last week, it’s doing real damage in the real world.
I open his book of quotes at random: “We work at a strategic level to understand an organisation’s human capital needs so that targeted solutions can be designed and implemented to meet business objectives”.
Again: “Leaders are also taught how to reshape their companies’ genetic code ... by teaching them how to graft practices into their patterns of engagement”.
And again: “A Change Management Practitioner has mastery of the change principles, processes, behaviours and skills necessary to effectively identify, manage, initiate and influence change, and manage and support other through it”.
This is the written equivalent of radio static. Some of it is filler, some is pretentious overstatement designed to bamboozle the reader into thinking simple words – say, leadership or change – are not enough. Some of it is gobbledygook, pure and simple. As Watson puts it: “Lo! A whole new industry was born, and a mighty lode for consultants revealed. Armed with the knowledge and the tools, the evangelists moved across the continents, dispensing learnings unknown to all previous generations, along with colourful mouse-pads, beanie dolls, screensavers, posters, movies and invoices, all bearing the message and the company logo”.
Anyone who works in a large institution will recognise this kind of guff. Most people shrug it off and get on with their everyday work. But there’s plenty about the abuse of the language which hurts us much more directly, and which we can do very little about.
Take global finance, the world of derivatives and put options from which most of us were excluded throughout the boom (or more correctly bubble) years, not only because of the complexity of the financial ‘instruments’ themselves, but because of the language in which they were cloaked. I freely admit that until the crash, I had no idea what a sub-prime mortgage was, or that a CDO was essentially a vehicle for parcelling up worthless loans and calling them prime assets. Hence Watson devotes no less than seven pages to quotes from the once near-sainted Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan.
Politicians, whose decisions have real effects on our lives, are also serial offenders. For some reason, the Victorian Premier John Brumby seems to have an inordinate number of entries; perhaps he fears the consequences should he one day express himself in plain English.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Churchill wrote some of the clearest, simplest English ever put on paper. Menzies and Whitlam were both capable of expression that was plain while still eloquent. Everyone knows that Kevin Rudd is a brainy politician: when he uses a phrase like ‘programmatic specificity’ he’s not communicating, he’s building a wall of words which the rest of us can’t penetrate.
Orwell’s conclusions still hold good, I think. His recommendations are ones which I try to remember every day.
Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
Never use a long word where a short one will do.
If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
Never use the passive where you can use the active.
Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
The battle – what Martin Amis called The War Against Cliché – goes on.
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