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

Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Cleaner

£15000 - £16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you've got first class custo...

Recruitment Genius: Mobile Applications Developer / Architect - iOS and Android

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a medium s...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Account Executive - £40K OTE

£11830 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working in a friendly, sales ta...

Recruitment Genius: Web Designer

£15000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Pentagon has suggested that, since the campaign started, some 10,000 Isis fighters in Iraq and Syria have been killed  

War with Isis: If the US wants to destroy the group, it will need to train Syrians and Iraqis

David Usborne
David Cameron gives a speech at a Tory party dinner  

In a time of austerity, should Tories be bidding £210,000 for a signed photo of the new Cabinet?

Simon Kelner
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water