Jargon merchants

2012 jargon

The year 2012 has seen little progress in the fight against corporate and institutional jargon.

Spokespeople continue to pour out their mumbo-jumbo, seemingly ignorant of how defensive it sounds, how the public are put off by it and how it often makes the spokesperson and their organisation sound utterly ridiculous.

What’s even more worrying is that journalists are starting to recycle this claptrap. Recently, I heard a BBC correspondent report on something taking place “in a work setting”. Did he mean “at work”? Mr. Jo Public doesn’t leave home in the morning to catch the 7.23 train, shouting upstairs to his wife as he leaves the house, “Bye dear, just off to my work setting”. Grounds for divorce, if he did!

By contrast, John Humphrys on the BBC Today programme remains the King of the Jargon-Busters. If there were a Brit Award for Gobbledegook-Slaying, he would win it.

In the wake of a report earlier this year on how everyone had screwed up in the Rochdale child sex abuse cases, Humphrys interviewed some social services person who spoke about a “multi-agency approach” being needed. As quick as a flash Humphrys was onto her, inquiring, “Do you mean social services, police etc?” “Yes,” she replied. In that case, why not say so in the first place?

On the same programme, a council chief promised to carry out a “thematic” assessment of the case. I met up with seven colleagues that morning. Most had heard the interview on their car radios. They’d just burst out laughing as they pondered how far an “UNthematic report” would get.

Speaking of social services, local councils and central government, I came across a belter during 2012. Apparently, bureaucrats often set up something called a “task and finish group”. What on earth is one of those? Are there committees in Whitehall and town halls around the country that have “task and UNfinish groups”, where they just sit around chatting about a task and leave it at that? Thinking about it, that would probably be an accurate title for most committees.

Then there’s the police, who in recent years have adopted a form of plod-speak that serves only to reinforce the views of those who say they have become detached from the public whom they are supposed to serve.

More and more, whenever there’s a murder or a terrorist plot that police are following up, a police chief comes onto our screens to describe the inquiry as a “dynamic investigation”. Are there occasions when the police launch an “UNdynamic investigation”? If so, I wouldn’t want to be the person being held at gunpoint or who’s had their house ransacked. Furthermore, you wouldn’t want to be conducting a “dynamic” investigation outside a house thought to be packed with explosives.

Then there’s that other word that’s slowly crept into the linguistic contortions of officialdom – “challenging”. Everything is “challenging” these days as far as public services are concerned whenever they’re faced with something that’s not plain sailing.

A woman – being beaten up at home at the hands of her husband – faces a “challenging home environment”. No she doesn’t. She faces a “violent husband”.

Police and rescue services searching in pouring rain for a missing walker say they are “conducting our search in very challenging conditions”. No they’re not – they’re just getting wet.

The inveigling of these totally vacuous words into our language has two main functions; either to try to bamboozle the public by using language that is designed to go straight over their heads, so as to keep them in the dark; or, these words are used simply to “big up” the organisation in question, to try to convince the public that they are worth every penny of their taxes, regardless of whether they are providing a half-decent service.

Anyway, that’s enough for now. That concludes my “strategic verbal desecration framework analysis going forward” i.e. my rant!


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