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.