A few grumps about lazy language use

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I was quite a precocious grumpy old sod, in fact I think I was grumpy before I could walk, but there’s no doubt about my status now: I’m officially a grumpy old man. Once you get past seventy years old you’re allowed to be as grumpy as you like, which is one of the few good things to be said for it. I’m particularly keen these days to nurture my grumpy hyper-sensitivity to the decline in the use of the English language; every day (or on a daily basis as they say) I see examples of awful English which, if it had more strength, would make my hair stand on end. This morning, after I’d eventually found my glasses (under a pillow), been to the loo a few times, taken my pills, put my slippers on the wrong feet, huffed and puffed my way down the stairs, and finally sat down in the kitchen with the kind of satisfied grunt that old people make when their bums successfully meet the middle of a chair, I listened to the BBC Radio 4 programme “Today”. Here are some of the things I heard people say:

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  1. Interviewer: What are the main findings of your report?  Interviewee: So basically we feel that …….
  2. We’re reaching out to all those who have issues with our plans.
  3. I can’t have closure until the guilty men are locked up.
  4. Interviewer: Did you actually see the accident?  Interviewee: So I was standing at the bus stop, and ……
  5. Well, it is what it is.
  6. We’re taking their comments on board.
  7. Interviewer: Good game! How do you feel?  Interviewee: So it was a really hard match and …….
  8. We don’t expect any major changes going forward.
  9. We’re worried about some of Trump’s plans for outreach.
  10. He’s going to hit the ground running .
  11. His performance was what can only be described as flawless.
  12. There was a palpable sense of relief when he resigned.
  13. Since time immemorial we have kept dogs as pets.
  14. The full extent of the damage remains to be seen.
  15. There’s been a paradigm shift in cancer care.
  16. The situation is fluid (code for “I have no idea what is going on”)
  17. At set point he really committed to a hard passing shot.
  18. The attack was a victory for terror.

If I had more time (it’s a myth, by the way, that we oldies have nothing to do; apart from the fact that whatever we do takes so much longer, there are just so many complaints you can make and medical appointments you can keep in a single day) … Where were we? That’s another sign (or “significant trait” as they say) of old age: you forget what you’re doing – which adds to the time it takes to do it, of course.  If I had more time, I’d sort the 18 items above into carefully-considered categories and then spin some well-crafted yarn that would make compelling sense of it all.  As it is, my younger, more sprightly wife is going hang-gliding this afternoon, and I have to help. I say “help”; actually, all I have to do is stand in the field she plans to land in and phone our neighbour, who has a tractor, if she crashes into the woods nearby. Anyway, I only have a couple of hours free, and time (which marches on, waits for no person,  and is certainly not on my side) is a limited rescource going forward.

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We can start with that one:  going forward.  In the quote above, “We don’t expect any major changes going forward”, the going forward bit adds nothing, and neither do moving forwards or other variations. Often, the best remedy is to simply leave out the phrase, although it might occasionally mean from now on, when an intended change is involved, or simply in future.  The culprit here, is, of course, management speak, which has been infiltrated into most parts of public language, and which John Humphries (of the “Today” programme) calls “a loathsome serpent crawling into our bed at night and choking the life out of our language”.  Management speak tries to sound important, but actually reduces language to a “debased, depleted sludge” as Don Watson, in his wonderful book Death Sentence calls it.  Sometimes it’s just annoying mumbo-jumbo (actioning deliverables by using blue sky thinking to build on best practice, for example), but sometimes its obscurantism is a deliberate attempt to conceal the truth. In the Mission Statements of so many companies’ Core Beliefs and Values,  “What we Stand For” can often give a good indication of what they do not in fact do.  Then there is the more sinister double speak that both dehumanises and seeks to control. Don Watson gives this example of judging an employee’s performance:

The role of the corporate centre is to worry  about talent and how people do, relative to each other. Workers build a set of intangibles around who they are. If they are not appreciated for their value-added, they will go somewhere else.

As Watson comments: “Ask yourself: would you stay if your value-added was not appreciated?”

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In my collection of quotes from the Today programme, Items 2,6,8,9, and 10 are examples of management speak, and one can detect its influence in a few others, too. They’re objectionable to grumpy old me for various reasons, like being pompous or untrutrhful, but basically because they all lack clarity and precision. What does it mean to say that you’ve “taken on board” the criticisms or recommendations of a report? That you’ve understood them? Agreed with them? Heeded them? Accepted them? All that’s clear is that you have avoided any promise to actually do something about them. And what does “reaching out” entail? Making a public appeal to? Contacting by phone? Contacting in person?  Inviting to participate?  Again, one gets the strong impression that those who are being reached out to are unlikely to see much improvement in their situations.

Item 17 “At set point he really committed to a hard passing shot”,  is an example of management speak spilling over to affect other areas, in this case sports commentary. To paraphrase Watson, just as a parrot might screech all day “Where’s my other sock?”, as if socks mattered to a bird, tennis players are now expected to show commitment and to be accountable, as if they were global corporations.

The other item connected to sport, Item 11, uses the journalistic favourite It was what can only be described as…... to avoid the effort of actually describing something; and this in turn is connected to Item 16, where The situation is fluid is code for “I’ve no idea what’s going on”, and to Item 12, where a palpable sense of relief is unlikely to have been palpable.

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A lot of the other items are clichés, dead bits of language which have been worn out by too much use. They just don’t convey much any more. I’m particularly sorry that “paradigm” has suffered this fate.

Items 1,4, and 7 are of the now ubiquitous “So”, usually found at the start of the utterance, and used like “Well”, or “Um”. I find it very annoying, but while I’m not prepared to take my wife’s advice to “just get over it”, I recognise that this is no more than me being an old grump.  The same goes for the tendency to use nouns as verbs. “Impact” is now firmly established as a verb; everybody with any business credibility is leveraging and actioning;  in our field, “grammar” has succumbed (Hugh Dellar likes to talk of grammaring); “fast track” was bad enough when it was only used as a noun; and I’m sure you have your own list of peeves. The older you are, the longer it’s likely to be.

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Finally, there’s Item 3: “I can’t get closure until the guilty men are locked up”. I wonder if the locked up bit owes anything to the Trump campaign against Hilary Clinton. In any case, what this utterance illustrates is the widespread sense of entitlement observed in our society today. These days, there is a growing belief, as Watson puts it, that no mistake, inadequacy or failure should be accepted as a normal part of life: someone or some human process is to blame, and without blame, there can be no closure. Getting closure is already a cliché; but given the amount of litigation flying around these days, where people try to get compensation from those they blame for what happened to them, it’s fast becoming associated with insincere greed.

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OMG, is that the time? Before I go out, I have to find the car keys (putting things in their “usual place” doesn’t seem to work these days); send off this letter to the local town council (complaining about the inappropriate use of the Catalan flag to wrap the baby Jesus in the nativity crib); trim the hair in my ears (sic); make an appointment with an optician (I can’t see the ball in the TV coverage of golf tournaments, even when I sit up close to the 60 inch screen); and fix the plug on my electric blanket (well it’s either that or a hot water bottle). Now, where did I put those scissors?

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5 thoughts on “A few grumps about lazy language use

  1. You’re obviously not blue sky thinking today, or reading on the same hymn sheet as the bloggers you were reading or giving your ear too… but then again, perhaps you need those ears to be aesthetically contoured and dewaxed, even alternatively haired to be able to appreciate the melody of rollocking bollocks that passes as information today…… we live in a society of infoxication, post truth and tripe ! Go climb a tree sweetheart and hide from this horrid world…. if I could fucking walk properly I’d join you !

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    • Sounds good. Ask Mick to pick up a litre or two of morpheme from the local farmacia, jump in the jeep, and I’ll see you under the old elm. Don’t forget your ukulele.

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