Saturday, March 21, 2009

Good words, bad words

John McIntyre at You Don't Say offers a valuable post on 200 words you can well do without. The post talks about a list of "200 words that public bodies should not use if they want to communicate effectively with local people" produced by the British Local Government Association. McIntyre's comment:

Two points of interest here: dishonesty and pretense.

Jargon and euphemism can simply serve the purpose of gulling the unwary. In such cases, the writer knows full well that he or she is being duplicitous. Imagine the vendor of a product who assures you of your good fortune at being able to buy a smaller quantity for a higher price.

But I think that pretense is the more common cause of the kind of bloating that the LGA’s little list represents. That is what makes it difficult to tell whether the language contains an obscure meaning or conceals a lack of meaning. Jargon, of course, signifies that one is a member of the club. For some years past, people who pretended to scholarly study of literature had to master the opacities of deconstructionism, which the uncharitable insisted was an assertion that texts have no meaning, demonstrated by example. To be accepted as a proper member of the bureaucracy, one must write like a bureaucrat, and anyone who marinates in that stuff long enough winds up unable to distinguish any other flavor.

There's nothing here with which I can disagree, certainly, especially when I actually take a look at the 200 words. The Association has offered these terms with alternatives that are better for clear communication. No one who has worked in a company or dealt with government will fail to recognize most of these, words such as:
Actioned (alternative: do)
Autonomous (independent)
Commissioning (buy)
Engagement (working with people)
Exemplar (example)
Promulgate (spread)
and on and on...
One could take issue with a few of these; "outsourced" isn't quite the same thing as "privatised," and there are times the distinction is important. More importantly, as McIntyre points out, a list like this is unlikely to have much effect. Quite appropriately, he urges us to use the list not as a weapon, but as a personal reminder to avoid falling into bad language habits.


Much as I agree with the excision of these words of pretense, I would argue that we sometimes need the so-called five dollar words. English is a marvelous language, with influences from around the world, and has so many words that we can often find a word that is exactly right. And sometimes that word is long or unfamiliar. Being either doesn't necessarily imply dishonesty or pretension (not that I believe McIntyre is implying that, but it's an attitude I've run into a few times).

For an example of what I mean, see this post by programmer Jeff Atwood. Atwood exposes us to the words "idempotent," "orthogonality," and "immutability," and explains why they are vital to the software developer.

Perhaps these words, and others mentioned by commenters on the post, are jargon, but they're useful jargon, limited only by the reality that too few developers are aware of their meaning. But understanding them can save a lot of time, as each expresses in one word a concept of depth and complexity.

The danger, of course, is that they will creep imperfectly into the vocabularies of the obfuscators, and we'll have politicians and business leaders talking about "immutable orthogonal idempotence," and no one should want that.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

wtf is this shit?

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