Do you speak politics? Can you string a whole series of political buzzwords together and mean, pretty much, nothing at all?
Politics-speak is the art of saying nothing, but with fancy words that sound impressive. At least, they sound impressive to some listeners. And it’s not only politicians who use them.
Often, it’s a case of the emperor’s new clothes—often, there’s nothing there at all.
For those who aren’t politics junkies, it may be useful to know that when a newspaper runs a story criticising an organisation (or a government), the organisation is usually given a right of reply. That reply often appears in full at the end of the critical article.
Those replies are great places to find political buzzwords. Or bromides, if you prefer. Gives you a chance to count them. Or to laugh at their absurdities?
Did you know that INTO and IN TO are not interchangeable?
Recently, I read the paragraph below in Jonathan Bouquet’s weekly column in the Observer. Jonathan Bouquet (a subeditor on the paper) is almost always on the side of the language angels, but this time…?
Oxford University Press has announced its shortlist for word of the year. Its choices are #IStandWith, Metaverse and goblin mode. The first two I am familiar with, but the last… completely stumped. I’ve never seen it or heard it. Apparently, it is “a slang term for a way of behaving that intentionally and shamelessly gives into and indulges in base habits and activities without regard for adhering to social norms or expectations”. I think it used to be known as slobbishness. (Observer, 27 Nov 2022)
The source of the definition is not specified in the column. It appears to be dictionary.com but the Observer (or Jonathan Bouquet himself?) has misquoted it. See my added red emphasis. The dictionary.com definition is actually:
Goblin mode is a slang term for a way of behaving that intentionally and shamelessly gives in to and indulges in base habits and activities without regard for adhering to social norms or expectations. (dictionary.com entry dated 7 Jun 2022)
Subeditors hanging head in shame? Oh dear.
One would have thought that such an august organ—the Observer was first published in 1791—would know better by now. But in the same edition, I read the following in an opinion piece by no less a person than Isobel Hardman, the Assistant Editor of the Spectator:
…more planning reforms are on the brink of failing, with ministers and whips alike expecting Gove to cave into rebels led by Theresa Villiers who want to make top-down housing targets merely advisory.
I was prompted to write this blog by some of the reactions to my post about habit words, a couple of weeks ago. So this week’s post is about anachronisms of various kinds.
Anachronisms? The standard definition is something out of its time—an object, an expression, an attitude—something that does not belong in the period of the story.
We wouldn’t put electric light in a Regency setting, for example. That one is easy to spot. But how am I, as a historical writer, supposed to spot the ones that lurk in the undergrowth of my ignorance? Continue reading →
I bet you do. Perhaps all authors do? A few weeks ago, in her excellent presentation on snappy dialogue at the RNA Virtual Conference 2020, Virginia Heath confessed to overusing the phrase “he huffed out” as a speech tag for her heroes. Virginia, being a professional, knows how to catch and reduce her use of habit words. Do you?
To start at the beginning: what are Habit Words?
Repetition can be boring. And people do notice…
Habit words and phrases are part of an author’s voice, the words and phrases that come naturally and automatically, that trip off the tongue, that make the writing sound like you. Continue reading →
One of the casualties of the pandemic has been language. Clarity matters. What, I ask you, is social distancing?
Social distancing? Or is it really physical distancing?
In my (pedant’s) book, social distancing relates to the strata of society.
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? Continue reading →
The other week, when I was reading the news online — I do occasionally use the internet, in case you were wondering — I came across an advert from a major UK bank. It may be one of the largest in the world, but it certainly is not the most educated. The HSBC advert (for it was they!) said, roughly:
The criteria for our offer is X…
Not an exact quote, but the subject of the sentence was the word “criteria” and the verb was definitely “is”. And I decided, on the spot, that I could never, ever bank with HSBC.
Even the authors in the Libertà hive know better. I mentioned it to dear Sophie on the telephone and I could hear her teeth grinding. Quite right, too.
Incoherent English? Yes, another bee in the Pedantique-Ryter bonnet.
Radio 4 Today programme in the dock for incoherent speech
In a short interval between my summer educational tours, I happened to be listening to what the pundits maintain is the UK’s “must-listen” political programme — BBC Radio 4’s Today. I heard an interviewer ask a question that was incoherent.
To save that interviewer’s blushes, I shall not repeat the actual words used. The question was roughly along these lines:
“As a supporter of the Rational Incoherence Party, I’m sure our listeners will want to know whether you would support policy X.”
Question: who is the supporter of the RIP? [Note: As far as I know, no political party admits to that name. Perhaps one of them should?] Continue reading →
Almost every writing tutor — including Sophie and Joanna of this parish — will tell aspiring writers that it’s a really good idea to read aloud during the editing process, in order to judge whether the manuscript needs more work. Basically, if you fall over your prose while trying to read it aloud, you haven’t got it right. Yet.
Apparently, we and all the other tutors are guilty of logocentrism. (Is that another of those incomprehensible words that Dame Isadora was ranting about, a few weeks ago? Maybe, but I haven’t been able to ask her, because she’s off in one of the wilder parts of the world, advising some government panjandrums about communication skills. I imagine her audience is still reeling…)
The fundamental superiority of paper never looked to be in doubt, though. With paper, you didn’t have to wait restlessly for half a minute for the dryer to finish its bloviation. You didn’t have to fear a malfunction. You could dab at spots on your tie, or dry a washed face, or wipe sweat from your brow.
The piece, by Samanth Subramaniam, was about the struggles between the producers of paper towels and hot-air hand dryers to win business in public toilets. I had a context; but the word remained incomprehensible.
I consider myself reasonably well educated and yet I was stumped.