Mary Dejevsky: It helps if doctors speak words we understand

Social Studies: Tony Blair's degradation of the English language should be right up there with his pursuit of an unjust war
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The Independent Online

An unexpected benefit of last year's change of government was an immediate improvement in the quality of political language. Over 13 years of New Labour, the language of politics was debased. Cliché, euphemism and spin progressively supplanted plain speaking until, when the gruff Scotsman finally wrested the keys to No 10, there was almost nothing for him to salvage. As a crime, Tony Blair's degradation of the English language should be right up there with his pursuit of an unjust war.

The consolation is that the language itself was not lost; it was merely in abeyance. I don't care that his successors had a public-school education (so did Mr Blair), the truth is that the quality of public political utterances soared overnight. Most of our politicians, wherever they went to school, are now speaking recognisably the same language that we speak. Some Labour stalwarts (Yvette Cooper, for one) can still be heard voicing the old impieties, but they are not running the country. We can switch off.

For 2011, would it be too much to ask that every other specialist group please follow the politicians' lead? Starting, say, with medical scientists, not because they are egregious offenders – I award this dubious honour to education experts and social workers – but precisely because they are not.

Last autumn I attended the World Parkinson's Congress, only the second event of its kind, which was held in Glasgow. My husband has the condition, so I had a personal, as well as journalistic interest. This is an unusual gathering in that it brings together scientists working at the further reaches of medical research, nurses, therapists and others involved in treatment, and patients and their families.

One of the things that struck me most was that the most eminent neurologists often spoke with the greatest clarity. I attended some of the introductory scientific sessions – for specialists introducing their work to other specialists. These were for the most part comprehensible to a non-scientist such as myself with an informed interest in the subject. I also heard some of the same neurologists present their work to audiences of lay people. Barely half were native English speakers, but they all presented their work in superb English, and answered questions directly and without a hint of jargon.

But all were bilingual in another way, too. They adjusted their presentations, without condescension, to their different audiences, and answered the questions addressed to them accordingly. Their excellence positively shone out. There was no hint of any pre-set agenda; rather a consciousness of a shared endeavour. Alas, this impression of pure, clear competence stalled with exposure to the GPs, nurses and therapists. These sessions, where the speakers talked about models of treatment and community care were harder to comprehend than the scientific ones – and frustrating to the point of despair. While the neurologists seemed to be galloping ahead in very specific directions, the nursing and therapy community seemed to be wandering, lost, in a land of modish concepts full of flow-charts and abstract nouns that supposedly set systems in place, but bore only a tenuous relationship to patients' lives.

After a while, I could only wonder, given the gulf in language and approach, how well the researchers and those responsible for patients' day-to-day care really communicate – or even if they do at all. The tragedy is that for very many people, it is the bland jargon-speakers who are their first, and sometimes only, contact with specialists in the health and social services. If only the elite in a given field got out more and presented their research, as the neurologists did in Glasgow, without the jargon-bound intermediaries, there might be more hope and respect on either side. Then again, of course, we need them to be working away in their labs. I wonder, though, why professional jargon has been accepted in so many fields for so long, and how it has come to be seen as evidence of competence when it so often seems to be the reverse.

I'd like to withdraw my money in peace

What is it about governments and cashpoints? Tony Blair wanted to march miscreants off to the nearest ATM and force them to withdraw money for their on-the-spot fines. Even Romanian thieves manage a more subtle approach, feeling obliged to engage in a little diversionary foreplay before taking their reward. Now David Cameron, or rather the Cabinet Secretary, Francis Maude, has hit on the idea of soliciting contributions to charity (aka the "Big Society") in that increasingly elastic space between keying in your desired amount and actually retrieving the notes.

Unfortunately for Mr Maude, it is not just the Prime Minister before last who fancied his chances with other people's cards at the cashpoint, there is a queue of rival claimants. It is a rare (and luxurious) visit to my local ATM when I am not assailed either by the Big Issue seller – ID slung punctiliously around his neck – or by entitlement writ large, in the shape of whichever addict has staked his or her claim to the adjacent begging pitch. I suspect there may be a rota involved here, having once witnessed a stand-off between two rather menacing dogs, and I'm not sure either Blair or Cameron would quite have the street-cred to mix it.

Then, when you actually get to the machine, whichever bank it is entertains you with adverts for its "financial products" in the flashes of downtime.As I say, there's quite a lot of competition out there for what might be called the cashpoint pound, and it can get quite brutal around the ATM. If you are tough enough to have survived this hostile environment so far, you are probably tough enough to resist the charity-seeking blandishments of HMG.