Politicians, officials and business executives are wrecking the English language. Look how shamelessly they convolute phrases, especially when they are trying to fool all the people all the time.
I blame the Americans. It’s usually a pretty safe thing to do these days – unless you’re an oil-producing nation, then it’s best to shut up.
But because of the extraordinary amount of junk words that the US feeds hourly into the television service, it may be too late to save the English language from becoming overwhelmed.
Buzzwords (dammit, there I go with an Americanism) such as “proactive” and “bottom line” and that awful “win-win” have, unfortunately, become ingrained.
Years ago that great friend of the Stoep, Don, an American (ah yes, despite what I say, some of my best friends are American), introduced me to Office Bingo. It’s a weapon used in the defence of good English.
John Humphrys, British journalist and broadcaster, described the game in his 2002 book Lost for Words. The book was about the “mangling and manipulating” of the English language. He suggested the game be played at conferences and seminars.
Take a sheet of paper, draw four lines down and four across (to make 25 squares) and fill each square with a currently hackneyed word or irritating cliché – in any order.
Examples: synergy, strategic fit, levelling the playing fields, bottom line, paradigm, 24/7, benchmark, value-added, proactive, win-win, think outside the box, fast-track, result-driven, empower, going forward, learning curve, touch base, at this point in time, mindset, client-focused, ballpark, game plan, leverage, road map…
You tick each box when a speaker uses one of these words. When you have five consecutive squares ticked off – down, across or diagonally – you stand up and shout “Bulldust!” (Humphrys suggests a more agricultural word.)
The first to call it out wins.
Humphrys said it enormously enhanced people’s attention span at conferences. Imagine the tension during a conference when, maybe, a dozen people are waiting to fill in just one more square.
Humphrys roundly criticised George W Bush’s mangling of the language (Example: “Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?”
He also flayed obfuscating politicians who seem incapable of giving straight answers – “One has the feeling there is a ventriloquist behind the curtain”.
George Orwell had a similar jaundiced view of the way English was going. Mercifully he did not live long enough to have to listen to Bush or the current presidential hopefuls.
But he could well have been describing them when he wrote of watching… “some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases – bestial atrocities, iron heel, blood-stained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder – one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy”.
Orwell wrote: “As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.”
LETTER TO THE STOEP
You mentioned the good old days. When I was a kid my mom would send me down to the shops with R1 and I’d come back with a bag of potatoes, two loaves of bread, three bottles of milk, a big piece of cheese, a packet of tea…
Hoooooo! You can’t do that now! Too many security cameras.