I have appointed a Secretary of Semantics–a most important post. He is to furnish me with forty to fifty dollar words. Tell me how to say yes and no in the same sentence without a contradiction. He is to tell me the combination of words that will put me against inflation in San Francisco and for it in New York. He is to show me how to keep silent–and say everything. You can very well see how he can save me an immense amount of worry.
Harry S Truman
I speak English and a smattering of French. Maggie speaks English, French and Dutch fluently and can mutter a bit in Russian and Italian. Across our family there are no fewer than five languages: English, French, Dutch, Japanese and Mandarin. My daughter taught my grandson to sign before he could talk so that he could communicate beyond smiling and crying. None of us speak all five languages but we all speak English and most also speak French and that’s more than enough for us to communicate effectively with each other.
It’s the same with the world. There are hundreds of languages and regional dialects. There are even some different alphabets with unique symbols but somehow, through translators if nothing else, the world is able to communicate reasonably effectively; at least it can until politicians and bureaucrats start to talk.
While language has often been used creatively in the written arts, its primary role is communication. That’s a concept that seems to have been left out of the modern government and business lexicon and nobody misuses language to obscure meaning more than politicians.
Did you want to run that by us a second time? It almost sounds like they know what they’re talking about doesn’t it? If they speak to each other at all those global meetings the way they speak to us, it would explain a lot about the mess the world is in right now wouldn’t it?
Years ago, a friend of mine handed me a worn copy of the American Army’s Quartermaster’s Catalogue. He asked me to find zipper so I naturally looked under Z but couldn’t find it. He told me that I was looking in the wrong section and to look under ‘I’ for interlocking slide fastener. It’s typical bureaucratize; the use of inflated phrases to replace common-use words.
Government-speak is a language designed to inflate the importance of even the most mundane topics or to obscure meaning until nobody has a clue what anyone is saying. That helps to deflect accountability. You can’t be held accountable for something if nobody understands what it means and it isn’t confined to government.
Banks, for example, don’t have bad debts, they have Non-performing Assets. Doesn’t that sound better? In one turn of phrase a negative has been transformed to appear as something more positive for the bank’s shareholders but try getting a loan from a bank when all you have for collateral is a bunch of non-performing assets and see how far you get.
Take this opening line from one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays.
“To be or not to be. That is the question.”
If government bureaucrats wrote a memo about that simple yet powerful phrase, it would read something like this:
We are actively considering issues of existence as they relate to the wellness and morale of Human Resources.
Not quite Shakespeare or even comprehensible but then, Ulysses by James Joyce isn’t all that comprehensible either and it’s considered one of the great literary works in the English language.
But there is angst in Hamlet’s question; a profound question about the human condition asked in a direct and simple way. Bureaucracy works overtime to eradicate the humanity and meaning from language until it is sterile. But if bureaucracy is sanitizing language; social media sites like Twitter and technology like texting are eroding it to a system of symbols which are the equivalent of Neanderthal grunts.
If Shakespeare had texted his soliloquy from Hamlet it would probably have looked something like this:
WTF! 2B -not 2B_?
It looks more like an algebraic equation than one of the best known lines of poetry ever written. It’s true that it communicates information but the universal context and significance of the meaning are lost; the very essence of the message is stripped to a skeleton that eliminates how profoundly the question speaks to the human condition.
On Facebook, it would have been written as:
Like and share if you’ve ever wondered why we’re born.
Language is increasingly being used to obscure messaging with each other. In some cases, language is being changed in order to dehumanize and rationalize situations; in others it’s being used to inflate the importance of the most mundane issues. When a company lays-off a number of employees, it isn’t downsizing – it’s right-sizing the workforce. Employees aren’t fired from their jobs, they are given an involuntary career-path adjustment.
Typically, when one company buys another, there are staff reductions as we saw recently when Burger King bought Tim Hortons. It isn’t people that are being fired, of course; it’s human capital asset redundancies. All of the humanity is stripped away by language used to obscure the pain behind the decision.
Language is becoming an amalgam of ridiculous, meaningless phrases that do little to move communication forward but do much to make even the most mundane things sound important. Quite frankly, if I hear the phrase core competencies used instead of skills one more time, I’m going to whack somebody with a Thesaurus or as government might describe it, initiate a physical literary event.
Consider these real-life examples from the world of business:
“He’s successful in interfacing with clients we already have, but as for new clients, it’s low-hanging fruit. He takes a high-altitude view, but he doesn’t drill down to that level of granularity where we might actionize new opportunities.”
Interfacing for interacting. High-altitude for overview. Drill down to that low level of granularity for detail and actionize, which isn’t even a word, for act.
Barclay’s Bank once released this statement from Rich Ricci, the head of Corporate Investment.
“I want to de-layer the organisation–creating a closer day-to-day relationship and clearer line of sight for myself into the business. We will organise our activity into more clearly delineated client-focused product sets.”
Translation? I’m restructuring the division.
Some of the terms and jargon being used today are so obscure as to be virtually meaningless; blame-storming, driving achievement tools, system outcomes, future progress, blue-skying, managing across the matrix and my favourite from Ontario Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne – revenue tools used to replace the word taxes.
It may be a tool for you honey but to me, a tax is still a tax by any other name.
People no longer work for the federal government; they’re now Human Capital Assets. The bureaucracy doesn’t undergo periodic productivity improvements, it undertakes tranformative evolution and periods requiring change-management. Executives no longer think, they have a mind-set which sounds almost painful sort of like intellectual flatulence more commonly referred to as a brain-fart.
We no longer monitor something. That has been replaced by seeing how it all plays out.
Race descriptors have changed so often in my lifetime I can’t keep up anymore. Negroid has been relabeled Negro, black, person of colour, African-American (insert country of choice), Afro-American in a period of less than fifty years. Orientals are now Asians and Indians are now aboriginals or native or First Nations or whatever.
Interestingly, in most aboriginal languages, the name of the nation in its own language simply means, the people. How accurately simple and honestly human is that?
In Canada, we are no longer French or English speaking people, we are Francophones or Anglophones which, as dehumanized as that may sound, is still a damn sight better than being an allophone which is used to describe everyone else. What in the f*ck is an allophone? For that matter, who in God’s name even speaks allo?
What I want to know is who comes up with this stuff?
I know they don’t hold meetings, pass a motion to change the language and then send out notices because I never got a notice in the mail about it – ever!
I think it is transmitted into our brains telepathically, while we’re asleep, by some secret government department buried deep in a mountain bunker in Colarado. I think that’s the real reason more people are starting to wrap aluminum foil around their heads at night. It’s an attempt to prevent the government or aliens from placing politically correct doublespeak in our brains.
The aluminum foil isn’t working.
Despite all the talk about resisting politically correct and jive language most of us readily and easily fall into line using the new terminology and phrasing as if it had been taught to us as a cradle language.
Linguistic erosion is destroying the real benefit of language which is found in its ability to move and touch us beyond merely informing us.
Poetry, prose and song lyrics help us explore the more profound aspects of life in a way that modern doublespeak can’t. Language speaks to the soul when it is used well and that can unite us by reminding us of the human emotions and feelings we all share in common.
Great writers like Ernest Hemingway, Samuel Becket, William Shakespeare, Votaire, Jean-Paul Sartre and countless others used language to communicate and explore ideas rather than to obscure and render them meaningless. It is why their works stand the test of time and are as relevant today as they were when they were first written.
Harper Lee used wonderfully human language to explore racial prejudice in To Kill A Mockingbird. It was so beautifully written that it was as if prose had been elevated to the level of poetry – clean, simple language that reaches into the soul and speaks to the issue with more power in its simplicity than all the political speeches and politically correct label revisions could ever hope to achieve.
Compared to Harper Lee’s prose, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan’s lyrics or Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, mind-set and plays out are simply a ridiculous erosion of the best that language has to offer. It’s just a lot of jive talk being used to obscure the real meaning of words.
© 2015 Maggie’s Bear
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