By John Preston
A few years ago, I was standing in a queue behind two men and eavesdropping on their conversation. One man was saying that he had a shed in his garden and was worried about burglars breaking into it.
“Oh,” said the other man, “Is it insecure?”
“Yes,” the first man agreed solemnly, “It’s a very insecure shed.”
Since then, whenever I come across a terrible linguistic pile-up, I see the specter of this insecure shed, hovering in mid-air and feeling sorry for itself. Recently, I’ve been seeing that damn thing everywhere I look.
If you’re after a classic example of a metaphor trying to eat itself, then Nick Clegg’s observation that, “You cannot balance the books on the backs of the poor” takes some beating. As for jargon, Herefordshire Council’s recent attempts to introduce “greater transactionalism” of its services sets the bar equally high. But for sheer meaningless twaddle, Leicester City Council’s 2013 notice to dog-walkers still reigns supreme: “A person who habitually has a dog in his possession shall be taken to be in charge of the dog at any time unless at that time some other person is in charge of the dog.”
Kingsley Amis once characterised the two sides in the never-ending battle over the soul of the English language as “Berks and W———”. Berks, he reckoned, were, “careless, coarse, gross and of what anybody would agree is a lower social class than one’s own … Left to them the English language would die of impurity, like late Latin.”
W———, on the other hand, were “prissy, fussy, priggish, prim and of what they would probably misrepresent as a higher social class than one’s own … Left to them the language would die of purity, like medieval Latin.”
At first glance, the late Sir Ernest Gowers looks—to put it bluntly—like a bit of a W——-. A lifelong civil servant, he was appointed Principal Private Secretary to Lloyd George in 1911 and subsequently became the chairman of the board of the Inland Revenue.
So far, so dull—except there was a lot more to Sir Ernest Gowers than that. In 1946, the Treasury invited him to produce a training manual on how to write plain English. To begin with, the book was only distributed among civil servants. However, it proved so popular that it soon went on general sale. Offered a flat fee of £500, Gowers opted to go for a royalty on every copy sold. This, as it turned out, was a very sensible decision.
Plain Words was first published in April 1948. By Christmas it was on its seventh reprint and had sold more than 150,000 copies. Gowers then decided to write a new book, An ABC of Plain Words, which was also a big success. Then he mashed the two books together to produce a kind of “greatest hits” package—The Complete Plain Words.
When The Complete Plain Words came out in 1954, it sold like hot cakes—at least that’s how you might have put it had you failed to heed Sir Ernest’s advice to steer clear of clichés whenever possible. Remarkably, it’s been in print ever since.
One of the things that makes Gowers such an engaging figure is that he wasn’t prissy, priggish or prim. As far as he was concerned, language was a living thing that was constantly changing—and this was just as it should be. Rules were essentially there to be broken. “One can no more write good English than one can compose good music by merely keeping to the rules,” he wrote.
What he hated above all was jargon—partly because it was impossible to understand, and partly because it demeaned people by making them feel stupid. The more monolithic bureaucracies became, Gowers felt, the more they reinforced their remoteness by using impenetrable language. He suggested three golden rules that everyone in government and business should abide by: “Be short, be simple and be human.”
Gowers went on to chair a Royal Commission on Capital Punishment—where, once again, he did something quite unexpected. The commission was supposed to be examining the arguments for tightening up the use of the death penalty. Gowers, however, far exceeded his brief by proposing that the best thing to do with the death penalty would be to abolish it altogether, a move that was finally enacted in law in 1965.
After his death in 1966, The Complete Plain Words went through two revisions—both of which fell some way short of being triumphs. Sir Bruce Fraser’s version, published in 1973, now makes for very uncomfortable reading: “Homosexuals are working their way through our vocabulary at an alarming rate,” Fraser wrote. “For some time now we have been unable to describe our more eccentric friends as ‘queer,’ or our more lively ones as ‘gay,’ without risk of misunderstanding, and we have more recently had to give up calling our more nimble ones ‘light on their feet.’”
When the third edition was published in 1986, times had moved on a bit. But far from making things better, the new editors went all out to be equal opportunity offenders by simply inserting the words “and lesbians” into the first sentence.
This was one of the reasons Sir Ernest Gowers’s great-granddaughter Rebecca decided to have a crack at bringing The Complete Plain Words up to date. “It was embarrassing that it was being sold in the form that it was,” she says. Above all, she felt, there was a more pressing need for it than ever before, with jargon steadily taking over the world.
“If you go on government ministry websites, for instance, the way they write is absolutely impenetrable. It’s all posted online for members of the public, but you can’t understand what they’re saying.”
At this point I shall throw in this recent example from a report commissioned by the Government Equalities Office for bad measure: “Finally, in pursuit of the above, it is also a shrewd moment to take advantage of a more open stance in shaping policy priorities and implementation mechanisms … Open policymaking, therefore, is a naturally structural corollary to behaviour change on the agenda of modernising government and driving effective public policy.”
As Rebecca Gowers describes the time spent trying to render this sort of bilge into comprehensible English, her normally perfectly modulated voice begins to crack. “I spent hours—hours!—trying to translate it. What infuriated me is that we are paying these people—but we can’t understand what they are saying.”
When she was growing up, the shadow of her great-grandfather cast a long, if benevolent, shadow over her family. “Certainly, I had self-consciousness of language drummed into me from an early age. If one dared to split an infinitive, you’d get jumped on at the dinner table.” In fact, Sir Ernest was pretty relaxed about split infinitives, airily referring to the rule prohibiting them as “an arbitrary fetish.”
Despite the best efforts of the Gowers family, the towers of piffle have continued to climb ever higher. While we might—at a stretch—be grateful that the term “brainstorming” has been banned by several local councils for being offensive to people with epilepsy, the fact that it’s been replaced by “thought-shower” makes me froth dangerously at the mouth.
Then there are the buzzwords that proliferate like Duracell bunnies: “eventuate,” “leverage,” “modalities,” as well as the unholy trinity of “restructuring,” “rightsizing,” and “shake-up”—all of which, of course, mean exactly the same thing: redundancies. And herein, perhaps, lies one of the reasons why jargon has become so widespread—because it enables people to do nasty things to one another without having their consciences tweaked.
In one sense, there’s nothing new about any of this. In the 14th century, Chaucer implored clerics not to bang on in the “heigh style,” but to “Speketh so pleyn at this time, I yow preye, that we may understone what ye seye.”
Four centuries later, the writer Laurence Sterne parodied the English mania for obfuscation in his novel Tristram Shandy, in which the main character is such a hopeless waffler that he doesn’t even get around to describing his birth until Volume III. What’s different now, though, is that jargon has become so convoluted that it’s putting people’s lives in danger. After the London bombings in 2005, the coroner found that there had been delays in caring for some of the victims because people working for the different emergency services had been unable to understand each other’s jargon. He went on to declare—irrefutably—“In a life-threatening situation everyone should be able to understand what everyone else is saying.”
As a result of this, the various emergency services got together to work out a way of ensuring this never happened again. That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is that they decided the solution was to compile something called an “Emergency Responder Interoperability Lexicon,” which would then be “cascaded” through various training courses.
Where does jargon come from? After all, no one is taught to express themselves like this in school—so where does the rot set in? “I think a lot of it comes from people writing to impress rather than to inform,” says Tony Maher, general manager of the Plain English Society. “They don’t stop to consider who might be reading this stuff. They just think their bosses will be impressed by as many long words as they can put in—and of course it makes no sense at all. The worst offenders as far as we are concerned are legalese and planning documents. At the moment I’ve got one Planning Notice on my desk which consists of 600 words and no punctuation at all.”
However maddening this may be, we should beware of going the other way and making everything too plain. Then we might lose the ambiguity that English excels in. One of the great pleasures of living in Britain is that you get occasional headlines like, “Lesotho women make good carpets.” You also get unimprovable delights such as the Department of Health’s advice to new mothers: “If a baby does not thrive on raw milk, boil it.”
As American president Theodore Roosevelt found, paring down language can go too far. In 1906 Roosevelt founded something called The Simplified Spelling Board, which suggested—among other things—changing “bureau” to “buro,” “enough” to “enuf,” and “though” to “tho.” So taken was Roosevelt with their recommendations that he ordered the Government Posting Office to use the new spellings. However, the reaction—and the ridicule—was so extreme that he soon backed down.
Political rhetoric, of course, is traditionally the most opaque of all. As George Orwell once observed, “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
He had an unlikely ally in the shape of Winston Churchill. “Broadly speaking, the short words are the best,” Churchill said, “and the old ones when short are the best of all.”
Which brings me, by an admittedly roundabout route, to my favorite political speech—one that embodies all of Sir Ernest Gowers’s golden rules, as well as Churchill’s. In 1966 a man called Dick Tuck stood as a Democrat in the California Senate elections. When the votes were counted and Tuck realized that he’d been soundly beaten, he conceded defeat with this all-too-human masterpiece of concision: “The people have spoken—the bastards.”