D J Taylor: Circumlocution Office: telling it like it isn't

While civil servants write in an obfuscating style, pithy old words in the English language have been declared extinct

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About the most excoriating piece of polemical journalism I have read in ages can be found in the current number of the London Review of Books.

Here Professor Stefan Collini of the University of Cambridge calmly eviscerates government policy, as set out in the recent White Paper, Higher Education: Students at the Heart of the System. The main points in Professor Collini's argument have been made many times since the Blairite educational bandwagon was first set rolling – that academe cannot be adequately comprehended as a "market", and that the idea of the student as a "consumer" is inimical to the purposes of education – but the beauty of his assault lies in his keen eye for the language in which this vision of "the student experience" has been advertised.

Among other choice extracts, Professor Collini seizes on a sentence declaring that the new system "should allow greater competition for places on the more selective courses and create the opportunity for more students to go to their first-choice institution..." As he points out, the second of these statements contradicts the first: if there really will be more competition for the most sought-after places, then by definition opportunities for applicants to get their first-choice places will be reduced. Later, he has enormous fun with the claim that "putting financial power into the hands of learners makes student choice meaningful". As he remarks, "putting financial power into the hands of learners" really means "making them pay for something they used to get as of right".

It struck me, as I got to the end of this considerable polemic, that Professor Collini's real theme was the debilitating effect of what might be called "mandarinese" – the extraordinarily obfuscating and wool-pulling literary style in which civil servants have presumed to address the people who pay their wages since the days in which Dickens's Mr Tite Barnacle was laying down the law at the Circumlocution Office. As so often with a piece of writing that emanates from a government department, one sympathises profoundly with the person (or persons) who shepherded this anodyne slab of prose into print. After all, the only reason an intelligent underling writes a sentence like "Putting financial power into the hands of learners makes student choice meaningful" is because he knows this is what his overseer wants. Like journalists who, if they have any sense, write solely for their editor.

***

In a recent edition of BBC Radio 4's excellent debating forum Iconoclasts, Faiza Shaheen of the New Economics Foundation could be found arguing the case against conspicuous consumption by a plutocratic minority on the grounds that it actively drives up prices. If a relatively small number of well-heeled consumers are prepared to pay over the odds for goods and services, she maintained, producers are encouraged to charge higher rates than usual in the hope of establishing a new purchasing norm. I was interested to see a practical demonstration of this in the ever more gentrified Suffolk seaside resort of Southwold, where the Taylors were holidaying last week.

The town's solitary butcher, Mr Hutson, stocks a fine brand of pork pie, which he sells at £2.45. Exactly the same variety of pie, from the same supplier, is available at the up-market delicatessen a hundred yards along the high street, and yet it retails at £2.95. You might think that one or two of the visiting investment bankers would jib at this 20 per cent mark-up, but this is Chelsea on the Blyth, and the delicatessen's clientele seem unfazed by this. But what about the town's less well-off shoppers who haven't yet found out about Mr Hutson? Call me an old Puritan, but a pie that costs £2.45 will always have the moral edge over a pie that costs £2.95. Or the people who eat it will. Meanwhile, one amenity Southwold could really do with, to add to its bijoux restaurants and designer dress shops, is a compare-the-market website.

***

One had an idea that words, unlike animals, never become extinct, and that even now there are people who consider themselves discombobulated, inhabit a domicile and pine for the return of the raree showman. Consequently it was a bitter blow to discover that language experts from the Collins Dictionary have compiled a list of words judged to have fallen out of mainstream use. They include wittol, defined as a man who tolerates his wife's infidelity (apparently defunct since the 1940s), drysalter, meaning a dealer in certain chemical products and foods, and charabanc, the open-topped, single-decker touring coach that was such a fixture of the inter-war Blackpool seafront.

No problem with the words wittol and drysalter, but surely there are people who still talk about charabancs, even in the self-consciously archaic tones in which elderly bar-proppers petition mine host for spirituous refreshment? And yet the last occasion on which I can recall a public mention was in "Peaches", the 1977 single by the punk ensemble The Stranglers, which contains the immortal lines: "Oh shit! There goes the charabanc. Looks like I'm gonna be stuck here the whole summer. Well, what a bummer..." Curiously, some of the most beautiful words in the language have to do with transport. Think of all the different varieties of 19th-century horse-drawn carriages – phaeton, britzka, barouche, brougham, landau ... Someone ought to start a society to rescue them.

***

The story of Simon Curtis, the Mastermind contestant who scored a single point on his special subject (the films of Jim Carrey) and complained to Ofcom after the comedian David Walliams described him as "astoundingly thick", stirred mixed emotions. Naturally, the fewer people who are humiliated in public the better. On the other hand, to set yourself up as authority on something is, at the very least, to invite some kind of judgement on your abilities.

I have never forgotten the trouble I got into 25 years ago while working in Messrs Coopers & Lybrand's marketing department, when the woman in charge of stationery affixed a placard to a pile of boxes that read: "None of these are rubbish." I amended this to read: "None of these is rubbish" – on the hardline grounds that the pronoun and the verb really ought to agree. A quarter of a century later, I blush at the memory of what a condescending little git I was. On the other hand, I note that Mr Walliams has gone unrebuked.

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