Monday, January 17, 2011

English as a Foreign Language

British Library

British Library

Sponsored Post

Five years ago, I was happily managing a branch of Ottakar's Bookstores in a sleepy coastal town in southern England. It wasn't the most exciting place to run a bookshop, but I worked with some lovely people and my employers were like-minded people who hated business jargon and viewed my personal quirks as an asset rather than a threat.

A few months later, Ottakar's was bought by HMV, who owned the Waterstone's bookshop chain and, almost overnight, the culture of the business changed.

What alarmed me most of all wasn't the changes in working practices or even the new restrictions on local autonomy, but the use of language. In Ottakar's, anyone who used jargon was ridiculed. In Waterstone's, good old-fashioned Anglo-Saxon words like old, new and closing down were replaced with legacy, conversion and exiting. When I had problems with a stock-management system that didn't really work, I was told that I needed to upskill.

I quickly discovered that reflection was a bad thing. We needed to be continually going forward and it wasn't enough to just do things - we had to ensure that we were actioning them. However, if opportunities presented themselves, we were encouraged to take advantage of any easy wins.

If we were presented with a rather challenging spreadsheet full of sales figures, we were encouraged to drill down and identify any issues. If there were issues that were beyond our control, we were encouraged to escalate them to a higher level. On the few occasions that anyone owned up to making a mistake, it was announced that learnings had been made. If I dared to make joke about this in meetings, I realised that I was surrounded by people with no sense of humour. I had to go.

In general, I have found that people use jargon to either obfuscate the truth or make perfectly simple things seem terribly serious and important. Regimes like jargon.

But if we're aware of our language and why it is in a constant state of flux, it is harder for the dictators to insist that their words belong to some long-established immutable truth. This is why I was delighted to accept an invitation from the British Library to do a sponsored post about a new exhibition called "Evolving English".

Evolving English is a free exhibition which is open until April 3rd this year and includes the only surviving manuscript of "Beowulf", the Shakespeare Quartos, Dr Johnson's dictionary and a variety of examples of different uses of English, including early advertising campaigns, text messages, comics, children's recordings, web pages, lists of slang and examples of newspapers from around the world.

There are also some wonderful dialect recordings, which I have already mentioned in this previous post.

If you live too far away to visit the Evolving English exhibition, there are opportunities to join in online. First, there is this quiz, which isn't as easy as I thought. Second, you can participate in the Tweetosphere (you heard it here first) #evolvingenglish.

If you are lucky enough to visit the exhibition, before April 3rd, you can actually become part of the collection by reading an extract from Mr Tickle. This will be kept as part of an archive to demonstrate what accents were like in 2010. I wish that a similar experiment could have been conducted 100 years ago, as I suspect that accents and word usage are in an even greater state of flux than we realise.

I'm delighted that an exhibition like this is taking place, because as long as we are of what's happening to our language, we can stop others from misusing it.

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Helen Brocklebank said...

I shall definitely go to the exhibition - it sounds brilliant. Did you catch any of the broadcasts on Radio 4 commemorating the 500th anniversary of the King James Bible? It was a glorious celebration of the richness of the English language, and as far from the 1984-ness of business jargon as one could want to be. My job is full of vile, lazy business-speak, and reading a document full of it makes a part of my soul shrivel and die, so I resolved to dip into the KJV whenever a particularly horrid example lands on my desk.

Grey Area said...

- it's a really good exhibition, however - I nearly fell at the first as I have extreme difficulty with the logo for The British Library - which was obviously not 'focus grouped' on highly strung, over sensitive dyslexics.

MikeP said...

My wife works in an environment where business jargon of the sort you complain about has taken hold, shall we say. She was ranting away one day about 'achieving deliverables', which she found particularly annoying. I suggested she convert this to 'delivering achievables' in her next presentation and see if anybody noticed. Nobody did, except for one person who spent the meeting in stitches.

Junie said...

" employers were like-minded people who hated business jargon and viewed my personal quirks as an asset rather than a threat."

It seems you have found a whole new group of people here in the blogosphere who feel the exact same way about both business jargon and you. As one of those people, I can only hope you find that as gratifying as I do.

Thank you for the links. When I read the recollections of the crossing-keeper's son in R. Blythe's The View in Winter, I hear his words in a rich--though no doubt inaccurate--accent. There's something about the rhythm of his words on the page that surges and ebbs and affects me like music. The thought of that being lost is terrible.

Poetry24 said...

I used to drive them mad in meetings, by deliberately asking people to explain what their jargon meant, in plain English.

My former colleague, Mike Chisholm, posted something you might be interested to read, HERE

Grey Area said...

Acronyms are my personal Hades. spending half of my time 'in Education' has opened my eyes to the horror of management doublespeak and letter by letter torture.

Most acronyms in my establishment emanate from the office of a woman with a sign on the wall that says 'acronym free zone'.

I was in a management/staff interface ( erm...meeting ) last week and the expression 'ECM' was used several times. I should explain that I am part of a University department that is accommodated on top of an F.E college. I didn't want to expose my ignorance, but in the end I had to whisper to the person next to me "what's an ECM"? - the management drone overheard me and snapped "EVERY CHILD MATTERS" - there was a stunned and awkward silence for a moment, and then I said "child? I teach degree - I've had students in their 50's and none under 20, isn't that a bit patronising"?

At this point something snapped and the assorted bunch of tired, brow breaten and underpaid academics began to rant and rave - years of frustration came to the fore and I considered hiding under the table in case there was a riot.

Anonymous said...

This sounds brilliant, and I'm so glad there's something for those of us who won't make it to London before the beginning of April. Mrs. Trefusis, I like your KJV antidote to jargon. The state of affairs in universities is pretty bad too. Luckily I work with a few people who laugh at "pretension and regression" instead of the correct eduspeak "retention and progression" (of students - as if *we* progressed them....). Thanks for yet another life-enhancing post!

The Poet Laura-eate said...

Well done Steerforth - at least some good comes of all the bad stuff and sinister language of five years ago. How ironic so many Waterstones and HMVs are now closing. So much for that management approach and 'moving forwards'

I will endeavour to pay a visit to this intriguing-sounding exhibition.

Ms Baroque said...

You are wonderful.

By the way, my word verification word is 'eutolons'. What can it mean?

Steerforth said...

Ms Baroque - Eutolons were very popular in the Byzantine Empire, where they adorned the exteriors of churches. They are like gargoyles, but have a far friendlier countenance.

Mrs Trefusis - I quiet agree. Whether it's the obvious quotes like "Through a glass darkly" or the murky depths of Leviticus, the King James Bible has never been bettered. Sadly I didn't hear the radio programes.

Anyone who continually uses words like tranches should spend several weeks in isolation, with nothing but the KJV for company.

Richard - I agree about the logo. It's not the great is it?

As for ECM, it's only slightly less offensive than the Watertsone's one: JFDI (just f*cking do it), which was frequently used. But as you say, how can anyone use this at a further education college? It's madness!

Mike P - I love that anecdote. It's such a relief when there's one other person in the room who can see how ridiculous the whole thing is. When I'm in meetings like that, I feel as if I'm in the Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the other people are doing passable impressions of human beings, but they are let down by their absence of any sense of the absurd.

Junie - the blogosphere has made a great difference to my life. I feel reassured by the discovery of so many intelligent, witty, generous people. On the all-too-few occasions that I've met these people in the flesh, they have been wonderful company.

As far as accents are concerned, like you, I mourn the consolidation of local accents into a few regional blocks.

Martin - I used to do the same thing. I'd spend the first half hour trying to appear as if I was taking the whole meeting seriously, then someone would say "ball park figure" for the third time and I'd snap.

Thanks for the link - I love the blog (or should that be "I'm loving that blog"?)

Christine - I'm glad you have some coleagues with a sense of humour. But it always feels as if we're the naughty children, whereas the jargonistas should be the ones standing in the corner of the room.

Laura - yes, I feel vindicated. HMV and Waterstone's have been "going forward" into a big, dark hole. In HMV's case, I think the main culpit has been internet cmpetition and illegal downloading. But Waterstone's is different. They chased after the mass market and forgot to keep their traditional customers happy.

I don't think they'll survive unless they use their "learnings" to ensure that they're "going forward" as a proper bookseller. Not the bland, retail chain that exists today.

Anne said...

Great post. I was with you until the final clause. I suspect language is democratic rather than elitist, so "we" can't stop others "misusing" it. So, farewell then, "decimate", "enormity", "flaunt"; hello "going forward", "alot" and "ect". Iain Sinclair (of all people) had a couple of healthy enthusiasts in the latest LRB "peddling" their bikes. I doubt it is his own mistake. Blame Spellcheck, the SatNav of language, but above all blame sub editors whose standards are no higher than those of the Guardian or the Independent. If LRB can't get it right, what hope is there?

I see Ed Reardon is on again tomorrow.

Steerforth said...

The most frustrating thing about this post was that it had to be submitted to the British Library for approval and I wasn't able to edit it afterwards, so in a post on the use of language, I can see several grating mistakes (e.g. I used people twice in one sentence).

I agree that language is democratic, but I also believe that a minority can exert a huge influence. Look at how a number of sexist and racist words have been made socially unacceptable.

Matroskin said...

I read an online article this morning about Nicole Kidman having a new baby by a surrogate. She said she's grateful to her "gestational carrier". I find the term awful. It makes the surrogate mum sound a like a machine.

There's a good article in the latest issue of The Economist's Intelligent Life about English nouns turning into verbs.

Anonymous said...

Great post! I'll definitely check out the quiz.

I used to work for an American chemical giant, and they were very big on jargon and turning everything into verbs.

One acronym I recently came across and found amusing (although I'd never use it myself) was SUMO - Shut up, Move on - on which point I'll stop rambling.

John Self said...

Hm, a sponsored post, Mr Steerforth? I've always ignored approaches from ebuzzing and the like, though I suppose my blog's narrower format makes it less useful anyway.

Dare I ask, if the British Library had required you to make changes to your post, would you have made them?

Steerforth said...

Absolutely not!

I am very strict about this and wouldn't change a single word (other than my own blunders). I was quite expecting my post to be rejected as, apart from mentioning the exhibition, I didn't follow a brief.

I've been approached with offers of sponsored posts in the past and have always rejected them.

I was going to do the same this time, but when I discovered that the client was the British Library and the purpose was to publicise an exhibition about a subject I was passionate about, it seemed a bit precious to say no.

I haven't sold my soul yet, although I'm open to offers ;)

Between Channels said...

As someone who works in teaching I find the current deluge of jargon in my workplace to be totally soul destroying. Thank you for your post and I will endeavour to catch the exhibition!

Sam Jordison said...

Small wasn't a reflection on the blog, of course... it's just that small works in the online world... Am thinking about the Guardian app I've just signed up for, for instance.

And yes, I quite take your point about the impossibility/ wrongness of being subscription based. I'd definitely click if you had a 'donate' button though.

Hey! You could refuse to withhold the next Derek until we reach a certain cash target... this target could increase and become ever more unreasonable with each episode and we'd still have to pay... And then... Maybe I should stop now.

Huw said...


I went to the exhibition this afternoon and thoroughly enjoyed it. Seeing the Beowulf manuscript was the highlight. There's also a small Rime of the Ancient Mariner exhibition on which was interesting.


Sam Jordison said...

Ah! I see I posted my last reply in the wrong place... It was supposed to go on the KJV post. Silly me! Sorry!

Steerforth said...

Huw, I'd love to see the Beowulf manuscript - I hope to be going up there in a couple of week.

Sam - I probably could 'monetise' Derek, but I know what he'd have to say about it!