The saga of the two criminals who cleverly escaped from a maximum security prison in upstate New York last summer also turned out to be an escape from simple, straightforward English. Thus, they or anyone associated with the chase for the fugitives were described not as “criminals” or even as “people” but as “individuals” or sometimes as “gentlemen.” Some of the chasing was being done not by “dogs” but by “canines” — a far more impressive animal. And once caught and shot, the individual is not just said to be “dead” — he is “deceased.”
All of this is a form of camouflage, speakers wrapping themselves in a cocoon of jargon so that other people don’t know what they’re talking about or are impressed with the puff of seeming erudition.
Language inflation has to do with self-importance and in attempts to suggest that what people are doing is somehow technical in the sense that it requires special training. “Waste management and disposal technician” for “garbage man,” for example, or such verbal cloudiness as the TV weather person’s “shower activity” or “precipitation” when what’s meant is “rain.”
And the business world and the media have fallen in love with “impact” as a verb. Nothing affects anything anymore, it only impacts it. Use it as a noun and it has greater impact.
All of which may be problematic, not “a problem,” you’ll note, because “problematic” sounds more important as does the burgeoning use of “regarding” instead of the simpler “about.” Thus, “little is known regarding the escape route of the convicts.”
George Orwell, whose style was clean and spare, observed that what often lies between what people want to say or write, and what they actually do say or write, is an inadequate grasp of language. This is certainly not helped by the bastardization of language by social media with its cryptic and uncritical bypassing of linguistic norms.
And it’s not just abuse and misuse of language; it’s also over use of cliché. For example, how often do you hear the phrase “at the end of the day” which should surely be eclipsed well before dusk on any day. Another overused phrase is “going forward,” which might profitably be stopped in its tracks. And then there’s “if you will,” an expression beloved of academics and pundits, and which could make one feel decidedly intestate.
Is there any way out of this quagmire? Getting kids to read, to speak, and to appreciate the beauty of English would be a good start. And weaning them off their iPhones and onto books will surely help.
Finally, there’s also ridicule: Send back any communication that warps the language. For instance, when you receive a memo “from the desk of …,” respond with “How did you teach it to write?”