Julian Sheather on banned words

I know not whether to laugh or cry. Into my inbox has just popped an index prohibitorum, a list of words drawn up by the Local Government Association that must not be used when providing information to the public. As a word-haunted liberal I am immediately – and quite properly for a liberal – in several minds. I don’t like censorship, but will I really miss the phrase “meaningful reusable interactivity.” Unlikely. “Externalities.” Never. But my joy at the flushing out of so much linguistic slurry – no more “brain dumps” or “thought showers,” no more “trialogues” or “webinars” – is edged with sadness at the reminder this list brings of the verbal sludge still flowing.

I cannot hide my delight though at the thought of a pale army of public scribes, each with a copy of Martin Amis’ The War Against Cliché under an arm, rifling the public lexicon for stock phrases and exhausted metaphors, thumbing press releases and consultation documents for meaningless words and pretentious constructions. A cleansing of the linguistic stables.

There is a slightly more serious side to all this, and it has to do with the relationship between our language and our culture, or, more specifically, our political culture. The decay of our public language, of which this list speaks, is linked to the decay of our political life. There is a deal of current complaint from our political masters and their intellectual infantry about a general turning away from politics, a retreat from public to private life, a favouring of private over public ends. Reading this list, feeling the numbness that vacant phrases like ‘deep dive’ and ‘double devolution’ bring to the mind, is to be given a clue to the reasons for that wider dissatisfaction.

I take politics to be the practice by which societies seek to maximise the human good – not the good of any individual but the good of us all. It is a moral enterprise – perhaps the moral enterprise – and evokes, or should evoke, what I take to be moral passions, such as the passion for justice. Obama’s election was a good example: dormant political passions broke out into the open.

It is unlikely that the forthcoming election in the UK will arouse similar emotions. Partly this is to do with the much discussed withering away of belief in British politics and the disappearance of real differences between the main parties. A politics that debates deep questions about how we should live has been replaced by a watery managerialism – a mere trimming of the sails according to the economic winds. And the pallor in the politics comes out in the language. Looking through the list of prohibited words, several features come to mind. Firstly abstraction. Almost without exception it is impossible to point to the thing that is being named. Secondly, bogus scientism. Phrases like “under-capacitated” and “predictors of beaconicity” are not only ugly, they are also attempts to give to give the appearance of scientific respectability to the emptiest ideas.

Thirdly, insincerity. When I hear language like this spoken it is not the attempt to communicate, or even to understand, the issue at hand that comes over, rather the speaker’s claim to membership of one or other in-group.

Thinking is difficult. The world is so overwhelmingly complex that it is tempting to give up the struggle. If politics is about changing the world, the attempt to understand must nevertheless be made. And good plain English is an ally. It doesn’t make understanding any easier, but at least you will have a better idea of what you don’t know, which sounds like a good start.

As some of you will have guessed, this blog is a brief and unworthy homage to Orwell’s wonderful essay  ‘Politics and the English Language’. I’ll give him the last words:

“If you simplify your language you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Julian Sheather is ethics manager, BMA. The views he expresses in his blog posts are entirely his own.