Language is confusing
Giles Emerson 24/11/12
About 20 years ago a revered client in a government scientific laboratory up in
told me about two scientists keenly discussing a project. Talking in the
language of their discipline they inevitably used shorthand in the form of
acronyms and mutually understood jargon to make themselves clear, one to the
other. ast Kilbride
We have all slipped into acronyms and tribal or cultural jargon in our language: from ‘radar’ to ‘posh’, from ‘
and ‘ROFL’, from ‘value creating
propositions’ (sic) to ‘delivering deliverables’. As technology struggles in
vain to slow down to meet the current ‘temporal m ass’
of the human psyche’s ability to cope with flying words (the point where it h as
some commercial or other application, however temporary), far too often these
terms are confusing, even between scientists having a banter.
According to my client, “one of the scientists referred to
meaning Manufacturing Automated Protocol but the other took this to mean MAP,
or Microprocessor Applications Program.” I w as
then told that the mistake w as
an e asy enough
one to make at the time but the confusion compounded when, in the course of the
conversation each scientist all but simultaneously realised his own mistake
and, out of courtesy, adopted the other’s MAP
When I heard this story, particularly given the nice idea of the loss of map references in communication, I w
triggered to write an article called ‘Trapped in the Word Jungle’, which w as
published in The Times. I subsequently wrote several articles on the subject
for The Times and The Independent. Most of them were tongue in cheek, but some
of them were quite angry.
In the mid-90s one section of an article I wrote for The Independent’s ‘Glossary’ section (when holiday-sitting for journalist/broadc
Sutcliffe) went thus: ”How did we get to the state in which we no longer flinch
at expressions such as
‘natural w astage’?
There must be a kinder and more grateful way of referring to people who are retiring
early or leaving a job for other re asons.
Natural w astage
is probably as
welcome a term to the naturally w asted,
cleansing’ is to the ethnically cleansed. Let us murder, kill, rid ourselves
of, but let us not ethnically cleanse.” That w as
written in about 1996. Ouch!
Looking at what’s happening today, you will forgive me for not trying to evaluate the numbers of confusions that abound in all parts of our life – inevitably, therefore in business and government attempts at good communication. There’s just too much mess of words and poverty of expression around and it is richly compounded by laziness and a dependence on emails; all of which is mounted from the rear by the weakest of all e-animals, otherwise known
‘social media’, a source of confusion that is already muddling itself up with a
plethora of activities loosely embraced in ‘digital communications’.
Thankfully, the monuments of our age that I feel sure descendent historians will keenly examine
representatives of our strange period of history, will be the things that
actually remain: some buildings in the mud, some books in c asks. It’s an interesting subject to chew on or to
dally about in a hangover debate.
I wonder whether anything of a digital kind will remain, however cleverly we store it for future reference. ‘Ether’ and online communications, and the servers that support their distribution and storage, are
a sneeze in terms of the p assing
of time. And they have a way of getting up our nose only to block it until the
next sneeze occurs.
To return to the slippery present, I am of an age myself where I am angry enough to write about things in a way which might, hideously, be called ‘p
Yet I’m young enough to be truly hungry for the next paid work and have a
longish way to go before I can retire sufficient to enjoy a few things that are
genuinely left to enjoy in the retirement sense. What’s age got to do with
this, you might ask?
Well, when I think of my continued gibbering at the stupidity of things, I wonder at how so many old people manage
they do. Perhaps they live on adrenalin fired by anger. If not, how do they
sustain themselves, intellectually and otherwise on the poor fare that is
served up to them in the form of modern (or relevant and accessible modern)
I revere my long-since otherwise employed former client, I hope that old people
can just about get by revering their memories, giving and unwritten two fingers
to the world at large. Fortunately for us all, we do have some contact with old
people who still have the energy and optimism to be angry out loud. These prize
exhibits will usually find the chance to tell us things about the p ast
that have shaped and liberated all of us: free as
we are to wander into our own wimpish and unnecessary fires.
But how many of us less-wrinklies truly listen, or have time to listen, or to ‘do’ the imagination that goes with good listening when the email in-tray is, once again, “tipping its bucket into the maelstrom”.
Having said all of which, thank God for weblogs!
20th November 2012/also The Times (dtbd)