Editorial — Issue 60

Mind your language!

 

The plurality of communication styles upstream of current stakeholders is relatively porous; but some destabilised pluralities evidence significantly more porosity than others.

We’re sorry – we’ll read that again. As Orwell’s power-crazed pigs might have put it, all language changes but some changes are more okay than others.

We are not, of course, Shocked of Remuera, writing peevishly to the New Zealand Listener or the Sunday Star-Times about the lamentable deterioration of spoken and written English. For instance, we’re not (really) hung up about roadside signs that advertise TOMATOE’S and POTATOES’. The grocer’s apostrophe can be seen, albeit grudgingly, as part of an organic process. After all, spelling and punctuation only began to be standardised in the mid-18th century by works like Dr Johnson’s dictionary. And 50 years later, Coleridge was still happily mixing its and it’s. Now, those very standards are being energetically undermined by the grammatical/ semantic anarchy of the Internet, while at the same time text messaging, however much it might superficially resemble the linguistic erosions of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, is setting up a correspondingly strict new code.

So is our complaint the same as Orwell’s in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language”, in which he slammed bad habits and laziness that led to staleness and lack of precision? Certainly, no writer or reader should condone these “swindles and perversions”, as Orwell calls them.

But he also lambasts pretension – dressing up simple statements to give them spurious authority. And this is our gripe. We’re daily assailed by euphemisms, neologisms and cumbersome constructions never heard at the checkout counter or over the kitchen table, and which aren’t healthy signs of a language evolving naturally from the grass roots up, but a kind of bureaucratic-and business-speak imposed from the organisational high ground.

It’s easy to see why you’d want to talk of downsizing and restructuring, when you really mean firing people – and, by implication, lots of them. It’s a similar impulse as led the Victorians to speak of passing on and going to meet one’s Maker – to soften hard realities. Sometimes, too, euphemism can cover off the fact that at the end of the day the bottom line is there is no core output … Fancy phrasing can also, as Orwell said, be an attempt to grab authority and control, as when Winston Peters tells us “the reality is”, when all he can really claim is “I think” Use enough jargon and inflated constructions and it looks like you belong to an in-group that knows what it’s talking about.

It may be easy to understand the temptation to erect these shoddy linguistic prefabs, but the centenary of Orwell’s birth is a good time to remind ourselves that we should resist, no matter how cheap and convenient the prefabs may be. It’s not just a matter of aesthetics: language that’s imposed rarely works in the interests of those it’s imposed upon.

Our opening sentence about pluralities of communication styles was barely parodic. No prizes for anyone who used more than one of the following words or phrases in the last week:

 

learnacy     opency     cover off the fact that

dehire             disincentivise           granular

governance         upsell            feed-forward

factor in       vision         scope       envision.

 

Harry Ricketts and Jane Westaway

 

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