David Aaronovitch: The only language we understand

'The Mafia talk about fellatio and death, not accountancy and aubergines. The EU must remember that'
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The Independent Online

Four years agowe were all laying flowers at the palace gates and feeling our own pain, and in 2001 it's the three As; we're all apathetic, angry and alienated. That's fashion for you, and I'm certainly not immune to it. So I too am casting around for ideas that will stop the slide into a state of mass abstention punctuated by summer riots. And one such idea was to be found on these pages yesterday, put there by the Europe minister, Peter Hain.

Mr Hain (a man I esteem) was addressing himself to the question of how to deal with the gulf between the EU leadership and the people of Europe. Low turn-out in European elections, Mr Hain argued, was partly a result of the obscure language used by the bureaucrats and MEPs. "We need plain language," he said, "not Eurobabble understood only by an élite, and virtually unintelligible to a new Europe minister like me, let alone an average voter." Instead, he went on, "we need a new popular language if we are to reconnect the EU to its citizens, to show that we are in fact talking about the things that really matter – jobs, prosperity, security, social justice and the environment."

Mr Hain is not talking about Esperanto (and if you think he should be, write to him and not to me). He is saying that if only the EU could speak ornery folk's language, it might do a whole lot better. This is not quite the view of Jasper Griffin, Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford, and professor of classical literature, who wrote in The Spectator recently. He too was concerned with the three As. But he felt that low voting figures might be partly explained by "the effect, disheartening and alienating, of our current political discourse: its lack of magic, of distinction, of style". Least magical of all was the most famous political phrase of the last five years. "Education, education, education" was a "blank repetition of a cumbrous polysyllable", suggesting to Professor Griffin "the murmuring of gentle waves on a shallow beach".

"Style", as far as I can tell from the article, is what you appreciate when, as a schoolboy, you translate Gibbon into ancient Greek in the manner of, say, Sophocles. I don't fully understand why (I'm not a classicist), but in the past, says Professor Griffin, this discipline allowed mandarins to "sit in Whitehall and sample the eloquence of our politicians for its stylistic distinction, or lack of it". Presumably, the objects of this scrutiny, knowing that they were being monitored, spoke and wrote more stylishly as a consequence. This, in some way, Professor Griffin believes, achieved the "connection" that Mr Hain seeks.

Can it be applied to the EU? Would we be better off if Signor Prodi and the commissioners were busily translating the deliberations of the technology directorate into the style of Virgil and back again? Would such a process lend some heroic quality to the business of regulating the export of aubergines? I can't see it.

And it is not just the EU or even politicians who obscure where they could enlighten. Professor Griffin has his own jargon: the jargon of the College Yearbook and the High Table, the fellowship of fellows, the mastery of masters, the matriculations of Deans. I have experienced his style more directly. In April 1974, I was sent down from Balliol after two terms. The professor was then tutor for admissions and, as it happens, for omissions. In this capacity he sent me a letter ending with this sentence: "You are no longer a member of this college and must cease residence forthwith". Now, I am not getting even with Professor Griffin, for the thing was my fault. Even so, "cease residence forthwith" was not nice. Had he written instead that I should "get my bony ass outta here", I would have felt less squashed.

Mr Hain is guilty too. His call for "plain language" was itself written in almost pure jargon. Mark the use of the word "reconnect", which is standard New Age/new management language. "Up and down Britain people know" something or other and "Europe needs to modernise as Britain is modernising". The "debate" we require is "robust" and "intelligent". The mantra of virtues (let us remind ourselves of it) goes like this: "The things that really matter – jobs, prosperity, security, social justice and the environment." But he's left out sex. Does sex not "really matter"? It does to me. So it's just another rhetorical device.

Little angers me more these days, however, than to hear political journalists slagging off politicians. For they too exist within the bubble and speak their own private language, even when addressing the lay person. A reminder of this was the coverage accorded to Amanda Platell's "revelations" on Channel 4 on Sunday. She was said to have made "dramatic" and "revealing" accusations; accusations so damaging that they could destroy the candidacy of Michael Portillo for Tory leader.

But they were no such thing. Ms P moaning to an unnamed producer about how a couple of journos had phoned her up to say that Francis Maude or "Portillo's people" (sinuous successors, presumably, to Pan's People) had been on the blower rubbishing the campaign, does not constitute "revelations". A revelation is when Michael Portillo is taped hoping for a Labour victory so that he can take over. These days, though, we all endure a state of permanent hyperbole, the journalistic equivalent of priapism. Is this not alienating? Look at the way the word "privatisation" is used, or the word "devastated". Can you be at all sure what anyone actually means – interrogator or interviewee – when they deploy either of these two words?

As so often we return to Orwell. His essay "Politics and the English Language", written in late 1945, demonstrated how politics was debased by bad writing – writing that helped dictators, poor arguments and demagogues, and excluded the reader. Castigating verbal false limbs, dying metaphors and pretentious diction (this last is Orwell the puritan speaking), he created a memorable simile of his own. All too often, he wrote, "an accumulation of stale phrases chokes him [the writer] like tea leaves blocking a sink."

Orwell then laid down six rules. They were:

"Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

"If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

"Never use the passive when you can use the active.

"Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or jargon if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

"Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous."

Now apply these tests to the next news programme. But, even if the world around you refused to alter, he added, "one can at least change one's own habits".

There is still an obstacle. If all politicians and journalists spoke and wrote as Orwell wanted, would it make a difference? Would you feel less alienated, angry and apathetic (you poor dears)? Politics, as I've pointed out, is not alone in using jargon. What about the Mafia? I have never met a mafioso (I think), but I imagine that Mario Puzo and Hollywood did their homework when constructing dialogue to put in the mouths of Sonny Corleone and Tony Soprano – all that talk of hits and respect and soldiers and what is owed to whom, and the arcane structures. And yet we think it is worth working hard to penetrate the verbiage, and discover what is meant.

Surely this is because the Mafia are always talking about fellatio and death, not accountancy and aubergines. So, if the EU really wants our attention, it must remember what interests us.