Pompous language is a weapon

November 5, 2014

People have different motivations for using gobbledygook instead of plain language. They may wish to sound impressive and assume, incorrectly, that fancyisms trump familiar words. They may use it as a technique of avoidance or obfuscation, if they want to hide the truth or are unsure of what they’re talking about. Or it might simply be habit or convention, as I said of advise in business communication.

Don Watson elaborates on this in his admirable polemic Gobbledygook: How Clichés, Sludge and Management-Speak Are Strangling Our Public Language (US title: Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language):

Corporate leaders sometimes have good reason to obscure their meaning by twisting their language into knots, but more often they simply twist it out of habit. They have forgotten the other way of speaking: the one in which you try to say what you mean. Instead they welcome their audience and proceed immediately to put them in a coma by announcing their intention to spend the next half hour outlining the company’s key strategies and initiatives going forward, and their commitment to fill capability gaps and enhance sustainable growth for the benefit of all shareholders

Even when we use it as a shield against our own uncertainty, pompous language is a weapon, an expression of power. Part of it is a mistaken effort to elevate the tone. Beneath pomposity rests the assumption that she who elevates the tone will herself be elevated; with luck, beyond scrutiny. The risk, which the truly pompous never see, is that an opposite effect is achieved or the tone moves sideways into unselfconscious parody.

Don Watson - Gobbledygook aka Death Sentence - book coverOn the matter of saying what you mean, Tom Freeman describes a writer going into Writing Mode instead of just putting their ideas in a direct and ordinary way. This is a common problem among aspiring or unskilled writers: they strive for impact in all the wrong ways, such as packing their prose with overelaborations and formal synonyms. Whether through habit, naiveté, diffidence, or lack of faith in simplicity, the result for readers is the same.

Two other things worth mentioning in brief: You probably noticed Watson’s use of she as a generic pronoun – throughout Gobbledygook he alternates between she and he for this purpose. A few writers do, and while I would favour singular they, the alternating style is at least more equitable and inclusive than defaulting to he, as too many writers continue to do. And did you see that unhyphenated unselfconscious? I approve. Oh yes.


Transporting the dear departed euphemisms

July 2, 2014

[Trigger warning if you’re grieving, or sensitive about death.]

Death is often called the great leveller; it’s also the great euphemised. I have a book on euphemisms with a full chapter devoted to it, and I’m sure that’s not unusual in the niche. The idea of death also recurs in slang and metaphor, as Jonathon Green shows here, at least some of the time for similar reasons of delicacy and evasiveness.

I was leafing through George Carlin’s book Brain Droppings the other day and found a vivid comparison of direct vs. euphemistic language in the specific area of funerals and burial (bold text in the original):

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Book review: ‘Who Touched Base in My Thought Shower?’ by Steven Poole

December 9, 2013

Of all the varieties of English criticised for degrading the language, one is deplored so routinely it’s practically an international pastime. Call it management speak, business jargon, bureaucratese or corporatese, the shifty locutions and absurd metaphors of office lingo receive a constant barrage of disdain.

Such jargon has its uses, of course. It can be efficient, creative, even genuinely evocative. But more often this brand of self-important communication (or in some cases anti-communication) irritates and provokes, warping and clouding ideas in ways that are at once cynical and ridiculous, as Dilbert repeatedly shows. And the takeaway across the piece is that office jargon will keep circling back, going forward.

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A reactive defence of ‘proactive’

May 27, 2013

What is it about proactive that people hate so much? Some object to it on the grounds of superfluity, arguing (incorrectly) that it does nothing active isn’t already doing, um, actively. Others revile it as management speak, a corporate buzzword like leverage, synergy and incentivize (Boo, hiss! etc.).

COCA finds proactive commonly collocating with approach, role, stance, steps, management, and strategies, which points to its prevalence in business or academic writing. It’s been appearing in print since about 1930, but it didn’t take off until relatively recently. Its rise to popularity has been distributed evenly on either side of the Atlantic:

Google ngram viewer - proactive in UK and US English

Such swift sweeps into the general lexicon rarely go unpunished (ongoing, I’m looking at you). A few minutes of Googling delivered reams of proactive-hatred, of which the following is a small sample:

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Book review: Sick English, by Janet Byron Anderson

April 18, 2013

Specialist language sometimes spreads beyond its initial domain and becomes part of common currency. From baseball we get home run; from jousting, full tilt. And from medical science we get syndrome, viral, clinical, [X] on steroids, and others – not exactly an epidemic (that’s another one), but a significant set all the same.

For example: a detective novel I read lately (Angels Flight by Michael Connelly) contained the phrase: “the senseless and often random violence that was the city’s cancer”. Intuitively we understand the cancer metaphor, but we might never have thought about it analytically. You’ll be glad to know that someone has.

Janet Byron Anderson, a linguist and medical editor, has written a book about these words. Sick English: Medicalization in the English Language looks at how medical terminology has “migrated from hospital floors and doctors’ offices and taken up dual citizenship on the pages of newspapers, in news reports and quoted speech”.

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Neologisms, jargon, pragmatics and cant

November 4, 2011

Macmillan Dictionary Blog recently asked guest writers to choose their favourite “online English” word. I couldn’t pick a favourite, so I cheated and wrote about hashtags.

What struck me most, though, was that three contributors chose the word blog. In a follow-up post, “A blob from a bog”, I write that its multiple selection

surprised and gladdened me, because blog is a word whose sight and sound I’ve always liked but have seen subjected to severe scorn and criticism for as long as it’s been around. . . .

Blog resembles blob and bog in particular, and both of these signify wet, messy, unruly things. I like both words, but I can see how some people wouldn’t. Bog, as well as being slang for toilet (hence the pun in blogroll), has negative connotations such as in the pejorative Irish slang bogman or bog man, meaning “unsophisticated person from the countryside”. [more]

Dawn McIlvain Stahl, on the Copyediting.com blog, was also following the discussion of online words. She never liked blog but wasn’t sure why, so she set about finding “firm ground in the blog bog”.

My next post for Macmillan, “A pragmatic note”, is about the subfield of linguistics known as pragmatics, which I describe as the study of language meaning and use in context: interpersonal, social, and cultural.

Pragmatics is a very broad field with fuzzy boundaries, so my post isn’t an attempt at summary so much as a few notes on its main elements, along with expert quotes and links to further reading:

Pragmatics pays heed to social conventions and cultural norms – such as those of politeness, formality, and familiarity – and also to prosody, intonation, facial expressions, and gestures, all of which can vary considerably from one context to the next. . . .

In any conversation, we are likely to exchange both sentence-level information and more subtle, implicit information that must be inferred from the situation and from our experience of a particular language and culture – invisible meaning, as it is sometimes described. The ability to do this is called pragmatic competence. [more]

Paul-Charles Chocarne-Moreau – Opportunity makes the thief (1896)

Macmillan Dictionary’s theme for October was subcultural English, and under this category falls “Pinch a phrase from thieves’ cant”.

Here I look at the old jargon of the underworld, the secret lingo of street criminals and people on the margins of society: phrases like marriage-music (“children’s cries”), arsworm (“a little diminutive fellow”), and priggers of the cacklers (“poultry-stealers”):

Cant has been more spoken than written, and its precise origins are, unsurprisingly, shrouded in uncertainty. But it was once a vibrant vocabulary that served not only to identify someone as part of the subculture but to prevent those outside it from understanding the speaker.

Historically, this crooked corner of English met with considerable lexicographic interest. Early dialectologists seeking fresh slang for their collections would pay late-night visits to disreputable areas, partly out of linguistic interest but also as a service to society. . . . The idea was that by becoming acquainted with thieves’ and scoundrels’ “mysterious Phrases” we might more easily detect and deter their villainous activity. [more]

The above post links to several old dictionaries of cant and criminal slang that are available online. They make marvellous browsing material.

Finally, in “Caught in a webinar”, I briefly examine the newish portmanteau coinage webinar, asking whether it’s a useful and perfectly acceptable term or a faddish and objectionable barbarism. Opinion is strongly divided.

[P]eople complain that webinar . . . “should be banished on pain of death” . . . but if it is found useful enough for long enough, it will survive no matter how malformed some people consider it.

New words, especially voguish portmanteaus, tend to push people’s buttons, often for reasons that are difficult to discern – a gut reaction that just sticks. If you have reason to use webinar but you really can’t stomach it, you can always take advantage of the richness of synonymy in English by falling back on web seminar, online seminar, web conference, and so on. It’s worth the extra syllables if it keeps your blood pressure down. [more]

I mentioned that October was Macmillan Dictionary’s month of subcultural English. You can explore other monthly themes here, and you can browse my archive of articles on language and words here.

Comments are welcome; and thank you, as always, for reading.

[image source]

Preloved euphemisms

June 24, 2011

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This ad in the local freesheet Galway Advertiser caught my eye. I was interested not in the reconditioned washing machine but in the reconditioned adjective that begins the ad. Preloved (or pre-loved) is apparently a very popular euphemism for pre-owned or second-hand, but I don’t remember remarking on it before. How old is it, I wonder?

Preloved doesn’t appear in many dictionaries, with or without a hyphen. Collins English Dictionary, quoted at Dictionary.com, says it’s informal Australian, while Wiktionary has a few examples of its appearance in the wild – well, books and newspapers – modifying cars, homes, tuxedos, and tables.

Browsing Google Books, and ignoring poetical and philosophical contexts, I came across the phrase preloved clothes in Women, Sex, and Pornography (1980) by Beatrice Faust. Looking further, I saw it mentioned in a collection of William Safire’s On Language articles: by advertising “pre-loved Oriental carpets”, a dealer in Philadelphia came second place in Safire’s 1979 Language Prettification and Avoidance of Ugly Reality Awards. (First place went to “experienced cars”.)

Safire’s award suggests that preloved in the second-hand sense might have been fairly new in the late 1970s, at least in U.S. English. (I found no hits in the British National Corpus.) Continuing my casual dig, I soon found an example from 1976, in volume 25 of Chicago from WFMT radio station: “We have several pre-loved Mercedes-Benz automobiles for sale.” It appears to be an ad or blurb, and it assures us that

owning a Mercedes-Benz is somewhat akin to being in love. You shun automatic car washes in favor of doing it yourself. The right way.

I see. Then, in an old Mayville telephone directory, there appeared this ad for “new & pre-loved homes”:

That’s from 1975. Lexicographer Kory Stamper was kind enough to take a quick look in Merriam-Webster’s files, and dated it to 1975 too (pending a closer look). Let me know if you find an older example.

For what it’s worth, I don’t much like the term. Loving something doesn’t mean it’s in good condition, and total neglect might leave something as good as new. What’s wrong with second-hand?


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