Pidgins Take Flight: Campaign against Plain Language

IMG_2378The British Empire has been decaying for decades, but in 1979, English woman Chrissie Maher attempted to rally the troops and lead a resurgence. In that year, Maher stood in London’s Parliament Square and shredded hundreds of public documents in protest of bureaucrats who used jargon-filled language. A noble act on its face, but then Maher followed this up by initiating the Plain English Campaign, a movement to standardize English into plain-speak, claiming that a simplified form of her mother tongue should be practiced by all English-speaking peoples. Many of her fellow islanders bought into the idea, but let’s be plain: wasn’t this just the desperate act by a withering empire, one more attempt to lord it over the rest of the English-speaking globe?

As you might expect, Maher’s campaign has journeyed across the pond. For American teachers of English, promoting a lingua franca would seem a wise choice. Every profession has its jargon, and the Plain English Campaign would like to do away with all of them. Whatever your professional vernacular—economese, federalese, legalese, bureaucratese, academese, officialese, initialese, or restarauntese—Maher wants us to zap its pretentions. Doctors should be able to communicate with bankers, bankers with politicians, politicians with horse jockeys, horse jockeys with cyber security experts, husbands with wives, parents with teenagers. Should Maher have her way, even “so ons” should be able to communicate with “so forths.”

For those who collect words, there are an infinite number to describe jargon; here’s the short list: circumlocution, clichés, clutter, doublespeak, double-talk, euphemisms, mystification, platitudes, slang, soft language, tripe, vagaries, verbosity, vogue words, and text-speak. More colorful terms include bafflegab, Bugbear style, bullshit, buzzwords, deadwood, doggerel, flapdoodle, flotsam phrases, gibberish, gobbledygook, jive talking, puffery, rigmarole, skotison, weasel words, and word salad. Idioms, upon my word, are also a form of jargon, but for some reason, English teachers encourage their use, especially English teachers who teach second-language learners, as though mastery of clichéd metaphors like “roll out the red carpet” demonstrates English fluency.

Written jargon, as anyone knows who has suffered under its spell, presents to the reader like a growing cancer, from words to phrases, phrases to paragraphs, and paragraphs to chapters. As it metastasizes, every healthy cell of knowledge that a manuscript might contain gets sabotaged by an organ-killing tumor. Single buzzwords like “synergy” or “implementation” yield to clichéd and quaint phrases like “capturing the low hanging fruit” or “trying to herd cats.” But from there, the complexities grow exponentially. Some sentences show creativity unparalleled and meaning indecipherable: “Let’s cascade this down to the team,” reads one thought manager’s email, “so they can synthesize about it when their bandwidth is high.” “It is inescapable,” pens another company’s chief cook and bottle washer, “that the numbers of staff employed in lower skilled transaction processing activities will decline as functions get disintermediated by technology.”

From my experience teaching, recognizing jargon, much like recognizing clichés, has much to do with the reader’s level of exposure. To novice readers and listeners, jargon such as, “the view from 30,000 feet,” can sound fresh and fascinating, even conjuring the breezy image of birds in flight. Seasoned employees who have sat through a few dozen office meetings, however, will be familiar with this high-altitude phrase and may want to narrow their field of view to “the big picture” or even return to solid ground and ask the simple question, “what’s the point?”

For those who enjoy poking fun at puffery like the phrase “transaction processing activities,” several organizations, including the Plain English Campaign award trophies designed to call out the masters of the obtuse. Awards presented by The Plain Englishers include the Kick in the Pants, given for companies that need to communicate better; the Golden Bull Award, presented for people who write tripe; and the Foot in Mouth Award, given for individual achievement in doubletalk, and which was once awarded to U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.  In response to a reporter’s question about why the U.S. military did not find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Rumsfeld famously clarified with the following:

“As we know,” the secretary deftly explained, “there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.”

But Rumsfeld can count himself among good company. Aside from the Plain English Campaign awards, Literary Review, a British journal of writing, once awarded their Bad Sex Award to famed prose stylist Tom Wolfe for impotent discourse about intercourse. Philosophy and Literature, a publication from Johns Hopkins University, annually holds a Bad Writing Contest to recognize achievement in academic puffery.  And the Bulwer-Lytton award uses the phrase “It was a dark and stormy night” as a barometer to measure the high quality of clichés in literary fiction.

No professional or unprofessional realm, I suppose, not even the blogosphere, is immune to the language constabularies. But the adjudicators of good grammar do generally like to pick on famous politicians, actors, athletes, supermodels, artists, comedians, literary writers, technocrats, and business people. Great fun is had at their expense. Rather than be embarrassed by their gaffs and shameful honors, many of these transgressors relish their notoriety and embrace their award statues as though the statues were cuddly ferrets. So while the award panels raise awareness, they seem to be fighting a losing battle. What good is it to make fun of people when they just laugh along with the joke and continue with their brazen bafflegab?

Many a night I have shed tears for the state of dear old Chrissie Maher and her Plain-Lady-Jane-English. I’ve lamented how shaming and embarrassing abusers of the mother tongue does nothing to make those abusers mend their ways. Okay, I concede. Many of these elder speakers may be too far gone, brains wired with the circuitry of circumlocution. But what about the ways of the young, those who I might expect to carry on a simpler form of English, still innocent to the ways of professionalese: my students for instance?  Maybe there is hope for the next generation of communicants.

Chrissie Maher

The Plain English Campaign has done great things for Chrissie Mahar OBE, but not much for English majors.

Still, no matter how many weeks I spend having students read and talk about George Orwell’s essay, Politics in the English Language, no matter how many YouTube videos and examples of political and business gobbledygook I play, no matter how I might snicker into my shirt sleeve to demonstrate disapproval, my classes rarely stare gape-mouthed when doublespeak gets spoken. Displays of doublespeak don’t make students angry. Rather than scorn periphrasis, they aspire to it. It is not unusual for a nineteen-year-old who has spent many years listening to country, pop, rap, and hip-hop music hand a paper to me containing sentences that plant the seeds for their future careers as speakers of corporatese:

“Work preparedness levels of new employees at The Red Robin,” one student paper begins, “are at an unsatisfactory level. Therefore, implementation of a full range of testing of front-of-house employees to ensure that guests are receiving an unrivaled dining experience is of uttermost necessity.”

I am not sure where fans of Taylor Swift and Kendrick Lamar learn to speak like this, but they are unfazed when this human form of white noise gets pumped into the classroom. Perhaps it serves as a gentle sleep aid, playing until the clock strikes ten of the hour. So what, they seem to be telling me, if business folk and politicians stick out their chests and engage in a little word thumping, they are making money aren’t they? And they are much more successful than you Mr. Charney. I don’t see any bankers wearing shoes with holes in their soles. Take a lesson from them. And anyway, when are you going to have our last papers graded and returned to us?

Can I say that my students don’t have the right perspective? They are big picture people and keep their eyes on the prize while I dwell in the minutia of symbolic sound. The occasional five-syllable implementation of a Latinization given a modern spin by a bureaucrat is of no affront to them. On the contrary, they are the first to defend the specialized languages of their chosen professions. They can’t wait to learn such languages and before even entering my class, I’m not sure they don’t believe that this is my true purpose, to teach them businessese, technocratese, bureaucratese, and/or academese. How disappointed they must be to hear me stand before them and say I’m a disciple of Chrissie Maher, interested in stripping down today’s wordage to a simpler form of Anglo-Saxon verbiage, sending as many Latinized and Frenchified corruptions to the gallows as I can.

When I talk about my students, I should clarify, I am not just talking about my U.S. students from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delmarva, I’m also talking about my international students, those from Saudi Arabia, Iran, the Ukraine, Nepal, China, South Korea, India, and Nigeria. While several may be second language learners, they still come to class already able and willing to drop in the specialized phrases of their chosen professions. Before I can instruct them to “terminally discontinue their proactive initializations of gobbledygook,” they have begun littering their papers with a language they must have heard from a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officer.

Those new to our shores can’t seem to wait to pepper their papers with professionalese. Instead of the word “use” used as a verb, they already know to utilize the word “utilize” for those same purposes. To get things done, they want to make things not only more “efficient” but also more “effective.” Not just each of them but “each and every one of them” is an independent personage, a “thought leader,” capable of “thinking outside the box,” “taking a proactive approach,” and “running things up the flagpole” before arriving at “actionable intel.” Many would call their attempts to sprinkle such phrases into their papers a “value-added” benefit for me, the reader.

And so I must ask myself. Am I, a lover of language—one who has at different points in my life checked out various disks and tapes from the library in hopes of learning Russian, French, Hebrew, Cantonese, Spanish, Polish, and Portuguese—a hypocrite? Am I wrong to immerse myself in these great cultures while making no attempt to immerse myself in the equally estimable and necessary cultures of business, technology, academics, and bureaucracy? Aren’t these languages as valid and valued as those with national borders? By choosing the language of Plain English over those of work jargon, wasn’t I, in the worst way, a cultural or language tyrant, an English-speaking imperialist of contemptible stripe.


What [is] the Plain English movement anyway other than an attempt to create a very large club, a Universalist Church, with English teachers as the primary ministers?


Teaching the virtues of plain-speak over and over, attempting to expunge and excise jargon from the Mid-Atlantic American vocabulary, when my student’s would rather listen to prestigious Beats by Dre, doesn’t this qualify me as insane, or at least a chump? And so I have come to a new outlook about conformity to Plain English. I renounce it. I henceforth abandon my heretofore notion that the application of a common language is of some utilization, and I encourage all peoples to use and allow the clash and diversity of multiple professional and recreational languages for the purpose of promoting the organic and/or forced growth of hokum.

I welcome them all: business jargon, slang, legalese, Klingon, salad speech, tech talk, Esperanto, Spanglish, and Ebonics. Let them flourish. Why should I be the one to take the spice out of the sauce? Why should any English teacher? Have you ever tasted English foodstuffs? Fish and chips get old quick. Why should Americans work so hard to welcome cuisines of all sorts to our shores and then embrace culinary paucity by insisting on one tongue only? Just because the English have an abhorrence for flavor, we American-English speakers don’t have to follow their trend.

I am now of the opinion that English teachers, especially business writing teachers, should take a Q-tip from the law of Capitalism. Let the laissiz-faire approach reign. With the rise of technology and computers, redefining businesses as people and clarifying money as speech, it’s clear that the corporations and techies have won the battle for our linguistic souls. Isn’t it time we remove the remaining constraints of Plain English and let words and phrases compete freely in the marketplace. No more should English teachers talk about the evils of legalese, bureaucratese, technocratese, or even gibberish. Whatever is is good, and with so many forms of language waiting to emerge and evolve, the best and most useful ones will win out, fluffed atop the scones and jam of Plain-Old-English like clotted cream.

With such an approach, life for all of us will be much more vibrant and interesting. Current specialized languages would not be relegated to subservient status. Those who use a business vernacular would be rallying around a flashpoint of pride, not shame. As is shown in most cultures, having a language to call your own imbues the speaker with a sense of identity. Speaking a specialized lingo, even mumbo jumbo, signals your membership into an organization, perhaps an elite one, and as everybody knows, it’s fun to belong to tightly knit groups, or at least to feel as though you belong. What was the Plain English movement anyway other than an attempt to create a very large club, a Universalist Church, with English teachers as the primary ministers?

As fledgling business languages gain ascendance, national languages and perhaps even their nation states will no longer serve much purpose, decomposing, their root word nutrients recycled into the new professional lingos.  But will anyone mourn the loss of nation states and nationalist languages, remnants of outmoded imperialism? When countries begin to give way to big business, the truth about what really makes the world go round will be better recognized. Already, many businesses such as Walmart, Exxon, and Shell Oil have gross national products larger than sovereign countries. Don’t these companies deserve most favored megacorporation status? If Apple were a country, it would be the 55th largest in the world, on par with countries like New Zealand, Vietnam, Slovakia, Morocco, and Ecuador.

industrial-revolution

With the increased need for jargon-to-English translation services, the ill fortunes of hundreds of aspiring liberal arts majors may finally be reversed.

A world organized by diplomatic cooperation among corporations is not far from reach or speech. The individual’s role in such a world would be as a citizen of their corporation rather than citizen of a country. Business culture and the languages those businesses foster would be the only cultures required. And why should this not be the case? Without businesses occupying our American shores, the U.S. Government, both Federal and state, would produce little more than tariffs and taxes. Clearly, national governments across the globe would go the way of the Greek City States.

But for liberal arts majors, primarily English language despots like me, the rise of various professional languages and the decline of Plain English, as well as all nationalist languages, would not mean the loss of one more job opportunity. English majors should understand that for years, they have been cutting off their incomes to spite their careers. It’s time they woke up to the possibilities. It’s time that English teachers gave up their adopted role as Plain English martinets and started taking on the new role of professionalese translators. By taking off the reigns of Plain English, and allowing the many professionaleses to blossom, the number of new languages fermenting within each megacorporation boggles the mind.

What better way to revive the dying liberal arts degree. No longer will liberal arts graduates be forced to move in with mom and dad once college ends, no more guarantee of unemployment, no need to apply for graduate school and add a more practical degree to the resume. Liberal arts majors can be trained in professionalese translation and can work not only as translators but also as linguists and scribes. The demand for interpreters with knowledge of how one specialized-speak translates to another will surpass supply. For example, when a French businessperson speaking French corporate jargon needs to talk to an American airplane engineer in Seattle who speaks English techno-jargon, the liberal arts linguist will come to the rescue.

With so many options for the study of living languages, linguists would no longer have time to mourn the loss of dying ones, holding out their digital recorders and chasing down the last living speaker of Wichita or Kusunda, Livonian or Amurdag. New syntactical and semantical constructions will require investigation, categorization, and classification. Liberal arts colleges won’t be able to keep up with corporate requests for educated polyglots, linguists, lexicologists, and philologist. I daresay that even a few Latin scholars might be tempted to abandon their musty, exsanguinated Cicero to study the hot-blooded vocalizations of vernacular bureaucratese in the Somerset County, Pennsylvania, Court House.

But I’ve created enough liberal arts jobs for the moment. Here’s the view from 30,000 feet. In this new world of corporate states, none of us should be worried about sharing a lingua franca. Where there’s a will to do business, but no translator, inventiveness will take over. Aside from organizational languages that develop internally, there will be an exponential expansion of pidgin languages, languages that crop up between trading cultures. One such Pidgin language that we all know is Swahili. This cultural construct required no social engineering, but developed out of necessity and has served the people of the African Great Lakes region and other parts of Southeast Africa, including Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Mozambique, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The creation of Swahili provides a good lesson: where there are goods to be traded, money to be made, humans find a way. So, whether you’re a lover of language or a practical tradesperson, a world full of corporate-speak promises a future of lucre.

The only people that may be left out of this new world order of professionalism are the government bureaucrats who will suffer the loss of their jobs as national governments start to crumble. With companies working things out between one another, I see a very limited role for these bureaucrats, if any role at all. Should we mourn their deaths and their special lingos? Megacorporations can certainly sponsor a monastery or two, and assign liberal arts monks to record and preserve agency dialects. Over time, because of its widespread use in history, bureaucratese might well become a sacred language: the Ancient Greek, Latin, or Old Church Slavonic of our era. Like those languages and like Klingon and Dothraki, a stream of dedicated followers will gather, hold conventions, and generate a niche economy, honoring Robert Moses and Donald Rumsfeld with monuments and toy dolls.

The only drawback I can foresee for this new corporate world order is the lack of a defense system or policing force acting to protect individuals from their employers or one corporation from another. Private defense contractors will certainly emerge to offer their services, megacorporations may train and employ their own armies, and small businesses will need to form cooperative militias to have any chance to compete against the big dogs of industry. But will these privatized defense forces ever have to battle it out in the marketplace? Even with the help of linguists to smooth over miscommunications, who’s to say that a few skirmishes over intellectual and real property might not break out? From my perspective, such brush-ups are a small price to pay in pursuit of a world rich in economic freedoms and one constantly renewing its cultures and languages. For my money, it’s time we all stepped into the thought Jacuzzi to see if this is a plan worthy of real-time actualization.

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2 Responses to Pidgins Take Flight: Campaign against Plain Language

  1. Jack Thomas says:

    Bureaucratiquette

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Anne Rouse says:

    Wow Mark – another amazing piece!
    Congrats
    I am forwarding this to a friend.
    Anne

    Liked by 1 person

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