One of the ways in which public bodies and their officials manage to put distance between themselves and the people they are supposed to serve is the over-inflated language they use in their communications with the world at large.
It smacks of delusions of grandeur. They clearly think that by embellishing the language they use, the organisation in question is boosting its status in the mind of the public. In fact, exactly the reverse is true. They open themselves to ridicule.
Here’s one example – “challenging”.
Everything is “challenging” these days.
Let’s say the inside lane of a motorway is closed for a bit because a car’s had a puncture. The police or the local traffic department put out bollards and are on the scene guiding the traffic. For most people they are just doing their job. Controlling the traffic in such circumstances is not seen by many as particularly demanding. How wrong they are! Almost certainly a senior traffic officer will be on Sky News that night saying that “for me and my officers it’s been a very challenging day”.
Similarly, a search team might be out in the Welsh hills looking for someone who’s gone missing. It starts to rain. That means the search team have been working under “challenging conditions” according to their spokesperson. No, my friend, it’s just been raining.
Observing all those war veterans who took part in the recent VJ Day commemorations, I can’t imagine many of them would use the word “challenging” to describe the slave labour they endured in building the bridge over the River Kwai or in suffering the appalling hardships in Japanese POW camps. They just got on with it.
Then there’s the other word that’s crept into ‘public body speak’ recently, thanks to Jimmy Savile – “historical”. Public bodies now refer to “historical sex abuse”. Most people would, however, associate the word “historical” with events that occurred several centuries ago or at least quite a few decades ago – not events that took place at the back end of the last century. What’s wrong with “past” or “previous” sex abuse cases? Simple – in the eyes of many public services involved in these cases those words don’t sound quite so grand as “historical”.
The above are just two examples of linguistic self-importance.
That’s why Judge Jeremy Lea should be commended for upbraiding a social worker whose report for a recent family court hearing was so drenched in inflated language he could barely understand it.
Describing various parties involved in a custody case, the social worker came up with phrases like “imbued with ambivalence” and “having many communalities emanating from their histories”.
The judge said, “These passages might just as well have been written in a foreign language.”
How right he was.
I just hope His Lordship didn’t retire to his chambers only to discover that his coffee-making machine was out of order – in which case he would have had a very “challenging” day.