Janet Street-Porter: A terrorist by any other name...

Click to follow
The Independent Online

I write this in a remote part of North Yorkshire, where local use of words can be so mystifying that even after spending a large part of the past 20 years in the same valley, sometimes I just nod my head knowledgeably, unwilling to admit I haven't the foggiest what someone is talking about.

A few miles away, in Hawes, an exhibition has just opened at the Dales Countryside Museum, charting the swift disappearance of words unique to the county. The internet, texting, television and radio are all responsible for turning the way we speak into a characterless mush, and expressions such as "blashy", which meant wet weather in the Dales, have all but disappeared. Around here, they still talk about "back end" instead of autumn - a relic of the time when June was fine and sunny and the seasons had more predictable weather.

It's not just north of Leeds that language is undergoing a radical change. Perusing a supplement aimed at office workers the other day, I was astounded to discover that unless you use the current jargon, you are virtually unemployable. It's bad enough listening to twaddle like "keeping you in the loop", "singing from the same hymnsheet" or "re-inventing the wheel", but they've now been replaced by fresh catch phrases such as "information touchpoint" - a way of communicating without holding a meeting. A good idea is referred to as a "thought grenade", and a rubbish one sidelined with the expression "let's sunset that". Honestly - even Ricky Gervais couldn't invent such bilge.

For a while now, we've adapted our language to conform to notions of political correctness, turning Personnel Officer into Human Resources and so on. Recently a government quango claimed it was bad to call bunches of young people hanging out on streets "gangs" as the word was too emotive. In future we were to refer to these packs of youths as "groups", unless we had evidence that they were intent on criminal activity.

For a long while I have loathed the word "local", especially when used by large supermarket chains. They love to tell us they are catering to "local" needs, using "local" suppliers whenever possible - somehow the repeated use of the word will ameliorate all the detrimental effect they might be having on small businesses in the vicinity of their giant retail shed.

Prince Charles and another organic farmer had their carrots dumped by Sainsburys the other week - it transpired that these vegetables were crossing the country to be washed and then returned to Gloucestershire to be sold in supermarkets a few miles from where they'd grown. Milk labelled Heart of England, which is sold in Hereford, turns out to be from the Midlands, and according to Tesco, that's local too.

The one major difference in our new Prime Minister and Home Secretary's manner in dealing with the events of the past few days has been in their extremely careful use of language. The people who drove the car bomb into Glasgow airport have been referred to as criminals not terrorists. No mention has been made of Islamists, and they have studiously refused to refer to a "war on terror". The tone adopted by Gordon Brown and Jacqui Smith is calm, non-inflammatory and inclusive. They've been at pains to emphasise that the thwarted attacks were aimed at the whole community, the British way of life.

You might find this a bit mealy mouthed - after all, is "criminal" the only acceptable term for someone so deranged that they think it acceptable to try to murder hundreds of other people and even try to blow themselves up in the process? There are all kinds of criminals. And all the people in the alleged plot subscribed to a version of the same faith, even if we are not allowed to mention it by name. The police still have anti-terrorist units, and anti-terrorism legislation allows them to detain and hold suspects as they are doing at present.

It remains to be seen whether changing terminology simply placates ethnic communities and religious groups, but doesn't really get to the heart of the problem.

Hammering out stress beats yoga

The department of Culture is such a stressful environment that employees are being offered free yoga classes, but perhaps they might do better donning hard hats and taking the train to east London to help with the demolition preparing the site for the 2012 Olympics.

In Madrid, a hotel chain wanted to replace one of their buildings, and invited locals to help knock it down. The 'roomolition' project was a massive success, and they were besieged with applicants ranging from taxi drivers to bank workers. The most determined wreckers were overworked mums, a spokesman said. When the new hotel is built, they can come back and enjoy a free night.

This idea could be adapted for British workers instead of team-bonding away days where you have to play cringe-making games. Imagining you are whacking that pickaxe right through the bosses' heads is far better than any video game.

* Public speaking can be tricky, and no one knows that more than the popular actress and star of One Foot in the Grave, Annette Crosbie, after she was engaged to do a turn at the Woolpit Festival near Bury St Edmunds.

The audience settled down expecting lively stories about Victor Meldrew and her fellow stars in the film Calendar Girls. Instead she decided to focus on the plight of unloved greyhounds, a charity dear to her heart. After people left in the interval, Miss Crosbie admitted that "people were disappointed... perhaps there were too many greyhounds."

She has my sympathy. This Saturday I am performing my one-woman show in Pateley Bridge, North Yorkshire, to raise money for a new roof for the village hall. Luckily it's a sell-out, but I have had nothing to do with the poster, which announces "JSP out and about in the Dales".

I hate to say it, but the material has nothing to do with walking and everything to do with my dysfunctional childhood and weird mother. It may have to be radically pruned.