One man's war on clichés (does what it says on the tin)

When John Rentoul published a list of key phrases he wanted banned, he had no idea in any way, shape or form what would happen going forward...

It was "any time soon" that pushed me over the edge. No. No time soon. Or ever. Just get rid of it. It is not a different way of saying "soon", just a longer one. That was when I posted on The Independent's blog, saying that the phrase "has been added to the list of Prohibited Clichés. By order".

It was a passing remark, about a BBC television report about when British troops might return from Afghanistan, but it prompted enough comments for me to return to the subject and outlaw other verbiage. There was no list of Prohibited Clichés when I started, but within days the Banned List had become an established theme on the blog. Each time I returned to it, readers added their own suggestions of jargon, vogue words and over-used phrases that annoyed them. It turns out that pedantry is popular.

Three years later, there is a list of the top 100 banned words and phrases on The Independent's website, at independent.co.uk/bannedlist, and the feature is popular on Twitter. The hashtag is #bannedlist, although "hashtag" itself is in danger of being put on the list, because it is a horrible new construction used only by insiders. You might think that Twitter is full of text-speak and mis-spelt slang, but it is also a playground for show-offs and sticklers. Kerry McCarthy, one of the most prolific MP-tweeters, and I were even involved in a discussion last week about the difference between a counterfactual conditional and a subjunctive conditional.

Normally, though, politicians are the worst offenders. It is not clear how much they themselves are to blame, or how much they are simply overwhelmed by the substandard drafting of civil servants and speech writers. Perhaps they lack the time to put a pen through it and rewrite it themselves. It is a national scandal that the Civil Service provides such ghastly drafting of official documents, full of turgid abstractions that are intended, perhaps unconsciously, to conceal the thinness of the content. As for speeches, what do politicians pay their speech writers for?

The Prime Minister's speech on NHS reform last week was a shocker for clichés: "pillar to post; in the driving seat; frontline; level playing field; cherry picking; one-size-fits-all; reinvent the wheel; let me be absolutely clear; no ifs or buts". If each of those were not on the List before, they are now.

The List is expanding all the time. The most recent additions were "turbulent priest", after the reporting last week of the Archbishop of Canterbury's article saying that no one voted for the Coalition's policies. Also banned last week: "What a difference a day makes", which was used on Newsnight to mean: "Yesterday we reported something and today the Government has done something about it." It is a bit like "a week is a long time in politics", which is as hard to eradicate as cockroaches.

After the eruption of Labour fratricide – I was going to say "literally", because they are brothers, but managed to stop myself because no one has died – "psychodrama" and "soap opera" are going straight on the List. (You may still use soap opera to describe television drama serials of the kind that used to have a lot of washing-powder advertisements in the breaks.)

Other recent additions to the List, which are over-used especially in politics and the reporting thereof, include "postcode lottery", "evidence-based", "metric" to mean "a measurement" and "around" to mean "about", as in "campaigning on issues around gender". Conservative ministers keep accusing Labour of having "maxed out" the nation's credit card. America is a great country, but some of its slang is best in its native habitat. Labour, meanwhile, continues to demand a "plan B". This is worse than a cliché, because it suggests that plan A, that is, George Osborne's plan to cut the deficit, was the best plan, but now sadly cannot be done and so therefore the nation should move on to the second-best Labour option.

The internet is not destroying the language after all, then, but giving us new ways of shaming its most prominent practitioners into using it better. Let us set politicians a quiz. What are guarantees always made from? Cast iron. And with what are their bottoms made? Copper. And what are they not worth? The paper they are written on. (Or, alternatively, the paper that they are not written on.) For whom do politicians speak? The silent majority. Or hard-working families. Especially the ones who work hard and play by the rules.

Well, it turns out that the silent majority want to read and hear fresh, clear and original language. So go to independent.co.uk/bannedlist and nominate your suggestions for inclusion. I'd say we should crowd-source this project, but I've put crowd-source and project on the Banned List.

Rentoul's banned list

1. Going forward.
2. Key, adjective. Esp. 'keynote speech'.
3. End of.
4. Game-changer.
5. Iconic.
6. In any way, shape or form.
7. Action as a verb.
8. Quantum leap, except to mean a change of state of an electron.
9. Paradigm.
10. A no-brainer.
11. Does what it says on the tin.
12. Any journey not describing travel from A to B.
13. What's not to like?
14. Beginning an article with "So".
15. It's in his/her/their DNA.
16. Daily basis.
17. Agenda, except to describe a list of things to be discussed in a meeting.
18. Psychodrama (to describe any tense political relationship).
19. Ongoing.
20. Stakeholder.

Read a longer version of the list here

John Rentoul is chief political commentator for 'The Independent on Sunday'

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