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200 words you can well do without

The ever-vigilant Jay Hancock spotted an item about a British move against bureaucratic jargon and forwarded a link to me. In brief, the Local Government Association has published a list of 200 terms that it advises writer to avoid if they wish to be understood. (Those of us intimately involved in the collapse of the newspaper industry would have been grateful to see synergies quietly euthanized long ago.)

It did not take long for the press and bloggers to see this suggestion — “words that public bodies should not use if they want to communicate effectively with local people” — as a ukase, an infringement on personal freedom. I’m assuming that that would be the freedom to sound like a pompous ass. There were no immediate reports of casks of tea being dumped in Boston Harbor, but it could have been a close-run thing.

Ken Smith’s excellent little book of 2001, Junk English, applied a well-developed sense of moral and aesthetic outrage to the various forms of jargon and cant. The obfuscatory gusto of lawyers and bankers and bureaucrats produces what Mr. Smith calls “machine language”: Sometimes machine language is deliberate, an effort to lull the reader into oversight. In most cases, however, it appears that those who produce this mechanical, numbing monotone simply know no better and believe that they are communicating their ideas and feelings to the rest of the English-speaking world.”

Two points of interest here: dishonesty and pretense.

Jargon and euphemism can simply serve the purpose of gulling the unwary. In such cases, the writer knows full well that he or she is being duplicitous. Imagine the vendor of a product who assures you of your good fortune at being able to buy a smaller quantity for a higher price.

But I think that pretense is the more common cause of the kind of bloating that the LGA’s little list represents. That is what makes it difficult to tell whether the language contains an obscure meaning or conceals a lack of meaning. Jargon, of course, signifies that one is a member of the club. For some years past, people who pretended to scholarly study of literature had to master the opacities of deconstructionism, which the uncharitable insisted was an assertion that texts have no meaning, demonstrated by example. To be accepted as a proper member of the bureaucracy, one must write like a bureaucrat, and anyone who marinates in that stuff long enough winds up unable to distinguish any other flavor.

I don’t have any faith that the LGA’s advice will have much effect; official bodies have never had much effect on the way people speak or write English (and neither have unofficial bodies), but it wouldn’t do you a great deal of harm to have a look at the LGA and seek whether you can root that odious claptrap from your working vocabulary.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 3:02 PM | | Comments (12)
        

Comments

As I am prone to do all too often, I have used this post (shamelessly!) as a springboard for one of my own (http://androcass.blogspot.com/2009/03/good-words-bad-words.html).

To recap, I believe it is good to remind ourselves of the casual use of "impressive" words, but we also should constantly seek out good words, no matter how long or unfamiliar, that express a concept that's important to us.

Your quote about deconstruction is great! How could so many intelligent people have been fooled for so long -- unless they had something they were ashamed of having written -- like the inventor of deconstruction, who wrote pro-Nazi texts. Then they would be happy that texts had no meaning.

In looking through the list I was reminded of the line from Man of La Mancha: "May the cure not be worse that the disease."

I get--and agree with--the point, but the list is goes too far. "Commissioning" is not the same as "buying", for example, and having worked for a short part of my career at a botanic garden, I know that plant taxonomy was an important horticultural function.

The more valid point, I think, is to know your audience and write for them. (Uh...write for it?)

Ah yes, and the article itself uses the phrase "Words included on the list include."

At a N.C. state agency, I'm fighting a lonely battle against "recipients receive." Guess I can't post the 200 Words on my door, as it's the equivalent of friendly (but still deadly) fire.

It's important to realise that the list is targetted at a specific audience ("public sector bodies") and can only be understood in light of that fact. The results of taking it literally - as though it were aimed at a general audience - are laughable, as in "this bucket has an ability of four litres". (One assumes that public sector bodies rarely write about buckets.)

Only computer programmers (and those of us who have studied computer programming) are allowed to use "top down" and "bottom up", because we know what they mean, and they have nothing whatsoever to do with "ignoring people" or "listening to people". Top down means working out how everything fits together in general before starting on the detail of specific parts. Bottom up means getting the details right before figuring out how to fit it all together. Anyone using these terms to mean anything else will be hunted down and eaten for dinner (though it might require a strong stomach to keep their bottoms down).

Why are "results" better than "outcomes?"

John: I loved "Junk English," which I got at your behest, and I love this list, too. I think your comment about gulling people with this sort of language is right, but I also think these terms get used and reused because there's some false notion among businesspeople and officials that writing in regular, clear words is somehow less august.

While "less august" is certainly a probable explanation, I always read this mush-mouth as somehow encouraged by the legal staff who seem to discourage actually saying anything, lest it be "actionable" by anyone, anywhere!

God bless you, John McIntyre.

Can anyone explain "Predictors of Beaconicity"?

Apparently "predictors of beaconicity" refers to the probabilities of which local governments in Britain are likeliest to apply to, be considered for, and awarded through the Beacon Scheme, which recognizes and awards best practices in delivery of services by said local government bodies.

Sorry you asked?

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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