Posts Tagged ‘jargon’

The power of Gowers

Wednesday, June 8th, 2011

Happy Birthday Sir Ernest Gowers. You would have been 131 this month. For me, that’s a good enough reason to celebrate your extraordinary work.

Gowers took the civil service by storm in the fifties, with his handy pamphlets on why and how public servants should write plainly. Here are my top five favourites of his delightful observations:

On the reluctance of officials to write in plain English:

‘The purpose of this book is to help officials in their use of written English as a tool of their trade. I suspect that this project may be received by many of them without any marked enthusiasm or gratitude.’

On why they’re reluctant:

‘[One reason is] the instinct of self-preservation. It is sometimes dangerous to be precise. “Mistiness is the mother of safety”, said Newman. “Your safe man in the Church of England is he who steers his course between the Scylla of ‘Aye’ and the Charybdis of ‘No’ along the channel of ‘No meaning’.”

On the need for precision in official communication:

‘…in [officials, there is] an unwillingness to venture outside a small vocabulary of shapeless bundles of uncertain content – words like position, arise, involve, in connexion with, issue, consideration and factor – a disposition, for instance, to “admit with regret the position which has arisen in connexion with” rather than to make the effort to tell the reader specifically what is admitted with regret.’

Slagging off the modern tendency for jargon:

‘The basic fault of present-day writing is a tendency to say what one has to say in as complicated a way as possible. Instead of being simple, terse and direct, it is stilted, long-winded and circumlocutory; instead of choosing the simple word it prefers the unusual; instead of the plain phrase the cliche’.

Pointing out that children can write better than adults can:

‘Why do we write, when we are ten, “so that the mouth can be somewhere” and perhaps when we are thirty “in order to ensure that the mouth may be appropriately positioned environmentally”?’

There are plenty of people in large organisations today who could do with following Gowers’ advice.

For more of these joyful nuggets, you can borrow Plain Words – A Guide to the Use of English from our library.  Or buy his wisdom to keep, here.

Dog blog

Thursday, January 27th, 2011

I’m joining a club. Around one in three people in the UK are already members, so I shouldn’t feel that keyed up. But I do.

Despite a lifetime of indifference to dogs, I’ll have one in my house in a couple of weeks. A tiny black Labrador, that will soon become a large black Labrador. I came about 80% round to the idea over the last year. The final 20% was achieved by visiting some litters. To my surprise, I was bowled over by the cute little rascals, and now I can’t wait to be one of those one in three people – a dog-owner.

Like most clubs, social groups, organisations, and yes, financial service providers, dog people use some jargon. Words that are either completely unfamiliar outside the club, or have a particular meaning that sounds odd to outsiders.

‘Bitch’ is the obvious one. Whilst we all know what it means, who but a fervent dog-lover would ever say, “Yes, she’s a lovely bitch”? ‘Castration’ is another one that stops you in your tracks, but in dog land it’s just a word.

Who says ‘whelping’ or ‘spayed’? Would you know what crate training involved? I confess I didn’t know the word ‘conformation’ before but a ‘breeder’ said it to me as casually as if she’d been saying the word ‘cheese’.

Some of this jargon is odd, some is disturbing and some leaves you reaching for the OED. But I don’t mind it. In fact I quite like it. It makes me trust the speaker’s opinion and follow their advice. And I’m reading books and pamphlets and websites to learn even more about our exciting new family project so that I get it right and make the most of it.

So what’s the problem with jargon in financial services then? Why can’t customers embrace it as they  join the club of pension schemes and insurance policies? Two main reasons occur to me:

Firstly, dog-ownership is a club I want to join. When I come across jargon in pensions or insurance, it’s usually aimed at people who may need quite a lot of persuading before they sign up. No one naturally wants to buy a pension. No one gets a warm glow at the thought of insurance, despite what the TV ads suggest.

Secondly, you don’t see many door-to-door dog salesmen. Dogs sell themselves. You see the product bouncing around the park and you think, I’d like one of those. When you look into it, you find there’s a bit of jargon involved, but you still understand the product, and you’re keen to do what’s necessary to get one. If someone tried to sell you something you can’t see, and may never need, using words like ‘castration’ and ‘conformation’, you’d be off like a whippet.

Without a full understanding of the product, or a pressing desire for it, customers need the experts to explain and reassure in everyday language. This doesn’t just mean getting out the jargon-buster for a quick translation – it might take more time and care than that. And it’s not dumbing down, it’s making a connection.

Jargon is one of the reasons that one in three people have no form of emergency financial provision, such as substantial savings or life insurance. And one in three over-50s have no pension savings. I wonder if it’s the same one in three people who have dogs.