Banning jargon? Er, inexecutable Prime Minister

David Cameron has written to civil servants asking that they use plain language. Good luck with that

Dj Taylor
Saturday 18 July 2015 19:45 BST
There have been calls for an end to the sort of Whitehall-speak that was a second language to the characters in ‘Yes Minister’
There have been calls for an end to the sort of Whitehall-speak that was a second language to the characters in ‘Yes Minister’

There is a wonderful moment in Born in Exile (1892), George Gissing’s great late-Victorian novel of religious doubt and social advancement, when the hero, Godwin Peak, comes across a man with whom, some years before, he went to college in a Midlands town. Naturally, in the interval their paths have diverged – Peak is an embittered, class-conscious free-thinker; the Rev Bruno Chilvers, as he is now styled, a fashionable and ambitious clergyman. Even more of a distinction, though, is offered by the peculiar manner in which Chilvers presumes to address his old companion of the lecture halls.

“One might have suspected,” the unimpressed Peak reflects, after a page or two of this, “that he had made a list of uncommon words wherewith to adorn his discourse, for certain of these frequently recurred”. The clergyman, when talking of spiritual matters, is a great one for such recherché terms as “Nullifidian” and “morbific” and more than once speaks enthusiastically of “psychogenesis”. Why so? Well, Bruno is the very model of a late-19th-century broad-church parson; this is the kind of jargon such divines talked, and it is a mark of the depth of Gissing’s research into the breed that he should be able so precisely to reproduce their vocabulary.

I thought about Bruno last week when I came across a newspaper article revealing that the Prime Minister has pleaded with Whitehall to be “brief, simple and jargon-free” when providing policy advice to ministers. In a letter to be circulated to every civil servant, Mr Cameron is calling on officials to simplify the language used in ministerial submissions, and not hide bad news in a fog of obfuscation-heavy complexity. There will even, apparently, be a new award, to be presented annually at Buckingham Palace, to the public employee who has best succeeded in the knotty task of telling ministers what they need to know with clarity and succinctness.

And hats off to Mr Cameron, you might think, for his insistence that a spade should be called a spade rather than a large blunt object used to shovel earth. On the other hand, the sight of a government minister, or a captain of industry demanding an end to jargon, quite often quoting George Orwell’s celebrated essay “Politics and the English Language” along the way, comes round with slightly more regularity than a television programme featuring Stephen Fry. The long, losing battle for “plain English” has been going on for upwards of a century. Even in Brideshead Revisited the very first words spoken by old Mr Ryder, when his son Charles tells him that he wants to be an artist, include a pious hope that the house won’t instantly be filled with “critics and their horrible jargon”.

No doubt it is a sign of jargon’s irreversible onward march in recent years that the most accurate definition offered by my 30-year-old edition of the Shorter Oxford Dictionary is actually the fifth, dating from as long ago as 1651: “applied contemptuously to the language of scholars, the terminology of a science or art, or the cant of a class, sect, trade or profession”. Anyone desiring a crash course into quite how virulently it has colonised our national landscape is directed to the touchline of a children’s football match, where even the most amateur coaches can be heard muttering about “Christmas tree formations”, “parking the bus” and “using the channels”, or Private Eye’s “Pseuds Corner”, whose exposure of pseudo-intellectualism these days nearly always takes the form of highly educated people talking in code to their peer-group.

As to where jargon hails from, and why a lecturer in English literature in a provincial university likes to refer to a “sequential, realism-based narrative” rather than a “story”, its origins are intimately linked to what might be called the rise of the professional classes, that revolution in job opportunities offered by the social, commercial and above all institutional expansion of the Victorian age. The early-Victorian schoolboy, counting out the cherry stones on his plate to determine his likely future employment had only a limited number of options, essentially the church, the law and the army. Even medicine, at this point, was a barely respectable career, and the novels of Trollope and Thackeray are full of doctors with names like “Slasher” and “Filgrave”.

Come the 1890s, alternatively, a vast range of new professions had either come into being or been made fashionable by the realisation that respectable livings could be made out of them. The future no longer lay in cultivating your estates or collecting your rents, but in making money, regulating that money or advising on the multitudinous responsibilities which making money involves. It lay, in other words, with accountants and stockbrokers and insurers and loss-adjusters and local government officials, and in all these areas of human endeavour one of the first signs that the profession had come of age was its adoption of an insider language sometimes amounting to private cipher in which its business could be transacted.

Viewed from this angle the rise of jargon was, on the one hand, more or less inevitable and, on the other, not necessarily a bad idea. After all, specialists need a way in which they can communicate with other specialists; most technical processes have their particular protocols and patterns, and even the knowledgeable readers of, say, novels set in the Second World War will sometimes wish they had footnotes to explain some of the terminology. But the jargon which financiers, lawyers and medical men rushed to cultivate in the later 19th century had peculiar disadvantages. Certainly it allowed like to communicate with like, in a manner that each side of the equation could comprehend, but it also gave professionals a fail-safe way of proving their status.

And so quite half of jargon’s allure is its exclusivity. The solicitor’s clerk on the commuter train exchanging professional small-talk with a colleague about peppercorns and escrows is, at one level, simply leaving a metaphorical calling card on the table. In much the same way, the jargon brought to the university teaching of English literature, about which every non-academic complains with as much fervour as the Prime Minister when faced with a Whitehall memorandum, was instilled there by simple nervousness. Teachers of EngLit knows, you see, that they operate in a world where there are no objective standards and where the extra-professional opinion is quite as valid as anyone else’s. In these circumstances to talk about the “valorisation of a text” rather than the reasons why we should read a book is the equivalent of a pre-NHS doctor writing “aqua” on a prescription rather than “water”.

It is very difficult to see how any kind of a brake can be imposed on this process. The whole tendency of the modern age – its technological fixations, the increasing specialism of its financial markets, its cybernetic rat-runs – abets the rise of anti-democratic communications systems which are designed to enhance the self-esteem of anyone who inhabits them while excluding and hoodwinking those of us who labour outside.

All we can do is to hold up their worst excesses to ridicule. For the jargon-monger’s real enemy, instinct insists, is not the well-meaning politician or the advocate of “plain English” but the satirist. The best way to obstruct jargon is to laugh at it. What, after all, could be more ludicrous than the mention of a sequential, realism-based narrative or the passages in Roland Barthes where that great literary theorist talks about the mobile structuration of the text? The clinching argument against the Rev Bruno Chilvers, after all, is that Godwin Peak knows him to be an idiot.

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