BOOK REVIEW / Adventures of a brave jargonaut: 'Jargon: Its Uses and Abuses' - Walter Nash: Blackwell, 16.99 pounds

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ANYONE who has tried to buy a computer knows the feeling. You are strolling past the electronic stacks with a seen-it-all-before smile, squinting at the prices when no one's looking, and suddenly a tall young man asks if you need any help. Well, you say, gesturing towards the nearest machine. I was thinking, maybe this thing here . . .

Nice one, he says. It's based on the Intel SX-25, and it's got 20 meg of ram, expandable to 32. That's a 14-inch, 64-bit screen, there are seven drive bays and you've got built-in Ethernet as well. The power-to-weight ratio's amazing, and it has a PCMCIA option for full connectivity. I think - hang on a minute - yes, there's a game port, and a fully upgradeable local-bus mothercard if you ever want more oomph. We're talking all the usual device drivers, fax utilities and so on, plus 80 meg of removable hard disk. What else . . . If you want, I can probably throw in a graphic accelerator. Course, it depends what you're looking for.

Er, does it come with the plug attached, or is that extra?

Jargon (the word comes from a medieval term meaning the twittering of birds) is designed to be baffling and exclusive. But it can also be good fun. Walter Nash, Emeritus Professor of Modern English Language at Nottingham University, is refreshingly alive to both the dismal and the flip side of the phrases coined by specialists. He is an out and out jargonaut, and while he has a proper reserve of scornful impatience for dim prose ('this is not a subject on which a decently warm human being can write with complete academic detachment') he is quick to welcome jargon as an inevitable and even colourful addition to the way we talk now.

His is a book of, um, two halves. Part One ('Taking on Board Relevant Insights Into an Ongoing Situation') is a sharp essay outlining the three different sorts of twittering. First, there is talking shop, the pragmatic business of time-saving short cuts between colleagues. Then there are the exclusive, pompous, snob-aesthetic habits of various social or professional castes: economists, actors, sportsmen, bureaucrats, and so on. Finally there is the language of sales, the sloganeering reflex of politicians and business gurus. Nash invents pseudo-serious labels for these distinctions: the 'interpersonal function', the 'membershipping function' and the 'ideological function'.

Jargon, he concludes, is language 'at work but nodding on the job'. He does not bother to admonish anyone; he just pokes fun. To jargonise, he thinks, is nothing more serious than to be lazy: 'Jargon provides in ready-made gobbets the verbal material that will pass for thoughtful discourse.' But he still manages to be severe on those who rely on hackneyed language for reasons of self-importance and deliberate obscurity.

He has a particular thing about literary theorists: he does not see why, if Stephen Jay Gould can communicate the subtlest designs of nature so poetically, it should be so difficult for academics to describe literature and creativity without talking about implicit hermeneutics, the inter-linear legibility of the structural code, and the negativist functionality of the text. He also enjoys noticing that economists are reluctant to say that interest rates should be cut when they can hint, instead, that pump-priming is not a serious option so long as there is inflationary pressure on M3. All such entrenched fondness for soggy generalisation comes in for a gleeful clip round the ear: Nash refers to 'the narcoleptic perils of abstract nouns' and cites a passage from an educational report in which 'thought has fallen asleep'.

He has chosen his enemies well, and teases them with relish. But this would not be much of a book if he were happy to leave it at that. The most surprising and impressive passages are those in which Nash considers jargon with sympathetic good humour. It may be a literary disease, he argues, but it is also a social necessity, and there is even something suspect about those too quick to denounce it. 'All attacks on jargon,' he writes, 'express or imply the fear that it is a symptom of a declining culture. We are never what we used to be, never as concrete as Shakespeare, as majestic as the King James Bible, as clear as Swift, as trenchant as Burke, and if there were any health in us we would get rid of jargon altogether and return to the simplicities of those olden, golden ages of English style. So we would.'

He is quite right: this is indeed a boring line to take. The essential point about jargon is that it is, well, essential, as natural a part of the comedy of manners as choosing clothes. It is a dialect, a 'token of mateship', and it is a habit: 'pleasurable, or funny, or reassuring'. The lovely, poetic thing is what happens when it moves, when it starts distributing entertaining figures of speech through the language. One man's jargon is another man's joke. There are hundreds of sporting metaphors in English that have floated in from their original homes - racing, golf, cricket - to enjoy sparkling careers in everyday conversation. It is now possible to say that your life leaves you requiring snookers, that the Prime Minister spent Question Time ducking bouncers, or that the Booker Prize went to extra time and penalties. Nash dips into literature, sociology, sport, war and peace in search of phrases that have wilted in their own setting, but flourished in daily use.

The second part of his book ('Such as in Cases of the Ensuing Nature') is a handy glossary of fashionable phrases, most of them worth avoiding. Nash includes, as he proceeds from ableism to zero, quite a few ordinary cliches and bits of slang, which hardly count. But it is nevertheless a likeable, eccentric and entertaining dictionary of new phrases and up-to-the minute fables. Many of his examples are taken from newspapers, and it is heartening to see that he is an eager reader of the Independent, a paper that turns out to be unexpectedly full of counter-inflationary contexts, democratic deficits, dream tickets, legislative frameworks, gender balances, issues, junk science, double-dip recessions, new men, photo opportunities, pontificating classes, porkies, cultural relativism, programmes of revirginisation, sound-bites, stabilisation funds, state-of-the-art technology, structural unemployment, toy boys, and (of course) value for money.

Nash has good communication skills, a relevant and valid approach in terms of his conceptual framework, and as such, at this moment in time, he has authored a book that blows the whistle on the credibility problem of language abuse, and uses humour-driven discourse to help define a totally accessible level playing field with no barrier to entry. What more could anyone want?

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