I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about language and communication lately, particularly the largely-unexamined assumptions about language that lurk in the background of my particular branch of democratic theory. I’ll write something longer about that shortly, but broadly speaking I think of language in rather anthropological terms as fluid systems of social meaning-making, not as fixed systems for conveying pre-linguistic truth.
Despite that, I have to confess I can be somewhat of a pedant when it comes to my own language. I could spend a whole lot of time trying to nuance that, but for now, I want to mark the end of 2018 by heartily wishing for the end of three recent words and phrases. They should be buried deep in a bog and not dug up for a thousand years.
OK, so turning nouns into verbs has been going on for a long, long time, but on what dark side of what hellish planet did the perfectly useful and widespread verb “to give” turn into the abomination “to gift”? There is no context in which “she gifted it to me” is better than “she gave it to me”. Stop it. Now.
This one puts a verb in place of a noun: the increasingly-widespread replacement of the long-respected “lessons” with “learnings”. I couldn’t believe my ears when I first heard this. Do the people who use this word realise that it started as a mockery of English from a Sacha Baron Cohen movie? If you don’t want to sound like Borat, stop saying “learnings”.
“In this space”
If you’ve not yet been subjected to this peculiar phrase, then (a) thank the Maker and (b) update your buzzword bingo cards. Formerly I had friends who worked in marketing. Now I have friends who work in the marketing space. This ghastly, self-aggrandising bureauspeak has spread like a virus through public services and into universities: I’ve heard a head of department tell a meeting that the assembled colleagues were in the education space, when they were actually in the “going out of our minds with suppressed rage” space.
When we adopt words like these we sound like herd animals, dutifully copying the tortured syntax of those in power. We sound like fawning courtiers praising the emperor with no clothes. We cannot speak truth to power using such words; we cannot speak truthfully, respectfully, equally, collegially with each other using such phrases.
The same, by the way, applies to the specialised languages we in academia seem to revel in. Tortured prose is used as a way of socialising students into a discipline; it becomes an identity marker, a sign of in-groups and out-groups, an indicator of how special we are. But sometimes it says more about the intellectual and communicative limits of the speaker than the complexity of the subject matter.
If I have one wish for 2019, it’s that we speak clearly, in terms that others use.
Happy new year!