SAY WHAT YOU MEAN AND MEAN WHAT YOU SAY
When I listen to interviews with prominent politicians and senior officials from both the public and private sectors, I often cringe. They use a form of all pervasive political “newspeak” that is designed to obfuscate and deflect any inquiry. Why can’t they say what they have to say in plain English?
Politicians tell us they are sending out “clear messages” when they are actually saying nothing at all. “Clear” and “clearly” are words that suffer the most dreadful abuse especially when attached to “very” and “absolutely”. So they say “I want to be absolutely clear about this” when they have no intention of doing so. It makes me think they are playing for time or defending the indefensible. Equally likely they are “very clear” or even “very clearly” aware of something or other. Why not avoid prefixing what you are about to say with being “clear”, just express yourself clearly. That will do the job.
A damning report is published and we receive endless assurances that “lessons will be learned”. What lessons? Just what is learned and, if there is something specific they have to say, then tell us exactly what action is going to be taken to improve the sorry state of affairs? Lessons! We are not in the classroom. Can we expect them to write out their lines 100 hundred times “I promise I will never let that happen again”. Is that going to remedy the problem? We are meant to feel reassured and our anxieties lessened by the calming effect of “lessons are being learned”. I for one could not be less comforted by such utterances.
Then there’s “going forward”. Following our masters lead, sadly this expression is becoming common parlance. What is wrong with “in the future”? I think our leaders like this expression because it sounds more important. If you “go forward” you are using an active verb that, of course, implies action. But behind it there is usually no evidence that anything is going to be done. And talking about done or doing, there’s “delivery”. How I’ve grown to hate that word.
“Delivery” used to involve a van or lorry. Not any more. “Delivery” when spoken by a politician means that something has been done or will be done. Mostly it relates to policies or projects of one kind or another. The Health Service for one is always “delivering” things. I would be happier if it occupied itself with improving people’s health and saving lives. “Delivery” is much beloved of management consultants who must take a great deal of the blame for these linguistic viruses.
The public sector in the 1980s was subjected to management consultants in droves. Politicians at the time thought it could “learn lots of lessons” from the private sector. Sadly the legacy was that mostly it learned how to speak badly. Now there’s another abused word – “legacy”. Ugh. But that’s belongs to the Olympics now so I can pass it by today.
I trust I state my argument robustly. Now there’s another sadly abused word. A step that’s being taken is “robust”. It sounds so much better than strong to the politician’s ear. How powerful it makes him feel. I am “robust”, what I am doing is “robust”. Fiddlesticks! Maybe something is strong or well made, well designed or even would stand up well to scrutiny or maybe they are right - it just sounds good. I don’t think so. It just makes me suspicious of the intent of the speaker.
So does “transparent” or “transparency”. The powers-that-be love to tout “transparency” and it comes from a system of government renowned for its love of secrecy. But “transparency” provides a cloak of virtue. The trouble is it is a word too often used by those who are expert at opacity. How I wish government practices were “transparent”, but my experience is to the contrary as I have on occasion struggled my way through the mire of interdepartmental buck passing.
It’s time for me to “move forward” to my conclusion. It is my fervent hope that the Independents for Bristol candidates will strive to avoid all this gobbledegook. It won’t be easy I know. These weasel words ring in our ears every day from television and radio and under pressure sometimes this nonsense pops out of the mouths of even the best intentioned folk. I vow that our leaflets, at least, will avoid these pitfalls. To quote the Mad Hatter’s tea party:
Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.
“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least—at least I mean what I say—that’s the same thing, you know.”
“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “Why, you might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!”
“You might just as well say,” added the March Hare, “that ‘I like what I get’ is the same thing as ‘I get what I like’!”
“You might just as well say,” added the Dormouse, which seemed to be talking in his sleep, “that ‘I breathe when I sleep’ is the same thing as ‘I sleep when I breathe’!”
Stephen Perry is a co-convenor of IfB and chair of Bristol Speakers’ Corner