Saturday, 12 March 2011

Jargon and other distortions

I’ve mentioned before that I’m halfway through writing another book in the Brilliant series – this one on Workplace Skills. A tiny part of it will deal with jargon, to which I’ve always been – shall we say, sensitive? So when I read the following paragraph in today’s Guardian, I thought a good cop-out blog would be to share some of the remarks and writings that I’ve copied down in a book I’ve kept for many years. The Guardian’s piece was from an organisation called the Local Better Regulation Office, which read:

'We are hosting a master class to take local authorities through the process of developing outcomes and impacts dashboards against their developed pathways. The session will focus on local authorities who have gone through the process of developing their logic model, and now require additional expertise on how to develop indicators to measure achievements against outcomes.'

We all love language, the things it can do, the magic it can unlock or create, and when it’s mangled, strangled and kicked to death by committees, evasive politicians and people who should know better, it hurts and infuriates. On the other hand, the way it sometimes transcends the atrocities inflicted on it to suggest dimensions unsuspected by the speaker is delightful.

It would be too easy to take examples from George W Bush, John Prescott, Dan Quayle (of far from fond memory) or all those other eminent public speakers who, rather than having a command of language, were in constant conflict with it.

Equally easy targets would be those ‘Instructions for use’ translated from another language, such as the one for a toy car, which warned ‘on occasion by using it as pushcart for the toddling baby about 12 months since born, the leg comes into contact with the car’s speed and accordingly the baby may be overturned’ or the cleaning fluid for glasses which suggested users should ‘apply less than one drop to both sides of the lens’.

But I prefer examples from people trying hard to make the words work for them. Like the engineering union official interviewed on the BBC who said ‘our members’ mood is one of very seriousness’. And these gems from a British football manager famous for his loquacity. Of his team’s disappointing position in the league, he said: ‘we cannot expunge the last 20 games. What we can say is as a result of the last 30 games, whatever the variables, excuses or praises one wishes to implicate, our position is as it is.’ He also wrote of another team which just managed to avoid relegation and which we’ll call Acme United: ‘Only a very, very few people were aware of the demeanour of Acme in 1986. Reminiscent of the eerie old haunted house that had been empty for years and was begging for life. No different to the dodo. How joyful for them not to have acrimoniated in the non-league. How delightful for them to be making a success of defeating extinction. Let us hope we are all able to be pulmonic!’ Another football manager – again British – whose team was winning 2-0 but ended up losing the match 3-2, remarked ‘As I see it, if you’re going to commit suicide, you don’t do it yourself.’

In fact, British sportspeople seem to have a gift for speaking English as if it’s a foreign language. One boxer claimed that ‘the British press hate a winner who is British. They don’t like any British man to have balls as big as a cow’s like I have.’ A Formula One driver said wisely that ‘the proof of the pudding is in the clock’. One reputedly intelligent footballer’s contribution to the sum of human knowledge was ‘Football’s football; if that weren’t the case it wouldn’t be the game it is.’ And yet another football manager, coaching a team in Spain, who wanted to stay there because of his garden, told his interviewer: ‘Look at that olive tree – 1000 years old. From before the time of Christ.’

It goes on and on and on – but in each case, it’s words that provide the delights – even in my final example – perhaps the silliest of all. The first names of a succession of managers of one English team in the Midlands were: Don, Johnny, Ronnie, Ron, Ronnie, Ron, Ronnie, Ron, Johnny, Ron and Ron.

Maybe it just shows how sad I am that I have a book full of stuff like that which I’ve bothered to copy.


  1. Bill, let me assure you - your post chimes perfectly with a columnist who writes for our Times, the Helsingin Sanomat. The people in the Finnish sport scene are capable of mutilating our (admittedly weird to begin with) beautiful language beyond recognition. There's many examples of this, but of course, they lose all power in translation, so you just need to believe me this is a global phenomenon.

  2. I've got *the* perfect YouTube/song vid for you.

    It's too difficult to type, what with laughing and crying at the same time.

    This made my day.

  3. Heikki, it doesn't surprise me to hear that it's a Finnish phenomenon, too. As well as being essential to communication, language is also a convenient way to hide inadequacy of thinking (as anyone in academia knows).

    Diane, Yes, brother Ron mentioned 'Da-do-Ron-Ron-Ron' before. I'm not sure whether I pointed out the name sequence to him to show him the elevated company he keeps.

  4. We shouldn't really be laughing, should we!?

  5. This was so entertaining, Bill. Thanks for sharing your collection and please do a Volume 2 sometime. So that I will have a bit of prose to keep me humble should I ever think I am eloquent (and I know I'm not), I'm copying this to my 'Bill' file of goodies.

  6. Janice - yes, always. I'd even do one of those laughing emoticons if I did them, but I don't.

    Marley - what a temptation to do another cop-out blog 'by invitation'. Thanks for the idea. As for the file of goodies, when you publish it, I want 15%.

  7. Ron (real name) Kirton15 March 2011 at 09:57

    I share Janice's discomfort. Targets like "committees" and "evasive politicians" are probably legitimate but your third group, "people who should know better" seem more vulnerable to me. Not that I didn't enjoy your examples (and I've been busy searching for that Midlands football team). It just feels like there's a danger of looking down on a group of "lesser brethren" who are not as gifted but who may be doing the best with what they've got.

  8. Ron, the trouble is that we're in a Clintonesque 'it depends what you mean by sex' dilemma here. I agree completely with you about those you term 'lesser brethren' and the efforts they make. The ones I'm talking about really 'should know better'. I had in mind, for example, some ex-colleagues whose lectures were stuffed with polysyllabic words and incomprehensible constructions, all of which were simply intended to convey the idea that they were towering intellects when, in fact, the words were screens behind which they hid. And I didn't quote any of them, because they're not funny - just pretentious pillocks. As I said, I'm more concerned with the pleasures that misuse of language brings. I applaud, for example, the manager who coined 'acrimoniated' and 'pulmonic' - he loved words and flung them about with little concern for meaning. He just thought they sounded good and, rather than consider him somehow 'lesser', I'm grateful to him for his linguistic creativity.

    Oh, and the team was West Brom.

  9. I agree with Heikki, it's a global phenomenon. Not necessarily negative though. Johan Cruyff, (I don't have to explain who that is) is famous and admired for his typical use of language. Most of it can't be translated (the ongoing frustration of writing in another language)But here are a few of his expressions : 'Every advantage has a disadvantage', 'before I make the mistake I don't make that mistake', 'Italians can't win from you, but you can lose from them.' Together with his frequently sniffing and the use of the word 'so' (about 3 times per sentence), the use of sophisticated words within ordinary sentences and his ever lasting straight face there's nobody like him. Whether you like football or not, Johan Cruyff is a hero. We laugh about him, but in admiration. He's more popular than the queen.

  10. And deservedly so, Anneke. I know the game isn't exactly a passion for you but Lord Cruyff is directly responsible for the beautiful football played today by Barcelona. Interestingly, he doesn't make those gnomic utterances in English. His comments always seem apt, and I can't say I've noticed him sniffing - but then, I bet the Pope isn't aware of any of Jesus' personal habits either.

  11. Laughing, laughing, laughing. And learning something new every day.

  12. Thanks, Linda - but it's the first bit of your comment that pleases me most.