One of the casualties of the pandemic has been language. Clarity matters. What, I ask you, is social distancing?
So… Regency aristocrat Lady Evadne Piddling-Coot is socially distanced from her washerwoman Hattie Gutbucket. If they were to meet — unlikely, one would think — Hattie would drop a curtsey and say nothing. Or, if they met in a confined space such as a staircase, Hattie would turn to face the wall and Lady E would continue on her regal progress as if Hattie were not there at all.
Some fellow pedants have pointed out (in vain, sadly) that social distancing actually means physical distancing. What else could it mean, when we are talking about 2 metres, or 1 metre, or 1 metre plus?
It’s not just a point for pedants, either. Instructions need to be clear so that everyone knows what they have to do. If official messages had talked about physical distancing, would the UK’s infection and death rates be lower? Possibly.
They could hardly be worse, could they?
Clarity matters : language can enhance or obscure it
So how to encourage people to start going out again, safely? What message would be short and, crucially, clear? What would the scientific and public health experts advise? Something proven to work? To give clarity?
It seems no one asked the real experts.
You might translate it as REMAIN VIGILANT. But that’s a no-no. It has too many letters for a podium sticker and contains a much-too-difficult word with three syllables. Or it could just mean BE CAREFUL — telling us to beware of anything from getting a paper cut to falling down a mine shaft.
Clarity of message? Ask yourself: what exactly does the STAY ALERT message tell you that you can and cannot do?
Yes, quite. Chocolate teapots, anyone?
STAY ALERT was, however, a gift to wordsmiths and comedians. It is a very old joke. It seems that the “communications experts” inside the UK government were too out of touch to be (ahem) alert to that.
No surprise there, then?
Old words, new meanings — do we have clarity there?
According to the Oxford Dictionary, lockdown is a North American term. It means confining prisoners to their cells, usually to regain control during a riot.
UK citizens are not prisoners.
Nor were we rioting.
But I can think of only one other term which adequately describes what citizens experienced: house arrest.
Faced with the choice of lockdown or house arrest, which term would you have chosen?
In this case, choosing the less familiar American word had the benefit of making our house arrest sound less draconian than it actually was. In that sense, it was a clever choice.
But clarity? Did everyone know what lockdown meant for them? You decide on that one.
It is much more common in American than British English.
British English prefers leave or leave of absence.
Most of us are not members of the armed forces.
And very few are missionaries, I would suggest.
But then again, gardening leave could sound too much like an easy option, at a time when there were no easy options. And, of course, it contains far too many syllables for political tongues to cope with.
So we got furlough. And unfamiliarity.
I’d say, though, that it was unfamiliarity with a purpose. It made us pay attention to the word itself, so that we registered that furlough meant something new and different, involving cash from the state. If we were paying attention, we possibly reached clarity there?
Clarity matters…even at Libertà
What motivated me to write this little rant? It wasn’t only the UK Government’s use and misuse of language. It was actually prompted by something I saw on Twitter. Language misuse from Joanna, blogger of this parish. In what I hoped was just a momentary lapse, she wrote:
But it was no temporary aberration. To make matters worse, Sophie — the co-author of a well-regarded book on punctuation, no less — wrote essentially the same thing, a day or so later.
However, to show what a kind and forgiving nature I have, I will include here a sneak PEEK at the book they were both trying to put in front of readers. I have read an advance copy, and I can recommend it, even though, sadly, it fails to feature either pedants or language experts.
It does include at least two teachers, but neither of them focuses on the critical importance of correct grammar. A missed opportunity, in my view, but I was not consulted prior to publication.
I cannot imagine why.