This article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday February 26 2012
The subject of my lecture today, ladies and gentlemen, is a four-letter word beginning with ‘c’ and ending in ‘nt’. One school of thought holds that ‘CANT’ comes from the Gaelic cainnt, which derived amongst groups of travelling people in Scotland and Ireland. We are talking here about the people whom the Irish are now forbidden by Political Correctness to call tinkers.
The most widely known form is “the Cant’, known to its native speakers in Ireland as Gammon and to linguists as Shelta.
In linguistics, cryptolect, the technical term for cant, is the argot or jargon of a group, often implying its use to exclude or mislead outsiders. Dr Johnson defined cant in his dictionary as “a corrupt dialogue used by beggars and vagabonds”, “a particular form of speaking peculiar to some certain class or body of men”, “a whining pretension to goodness, in formal and affected terms” -‘barbarous jargon”.
Today’s dictionaries define CANT thus:
(verb) To talk in an affectedly solemn or hypocritical way
(Noun) The vocabulary and language peculiar to a particular group or sect.
Chambers Dictionary, in its modern definition, comes close to Johnson’s scorn: “to speak in a whining wheedling manner; to use language whose meaning has evaporated from continued repetition; to use the specialised vocabulary or jargon of thieves, politicians, lawyers, etc.”
Notice how thieves, politicians and lawyers are lumped together. Today we can also include multinational corporations, advertising agencies, bankers and NGOs among those who develop and utilise arcane verbiage to fool the rest of us.
I have to confess that I was once guilty of producing cryptolectic crap by the yard myself and found it quite easy, way back in the early 1990s (“back in the day” as current cant would have it) when I worked as a “management consultant” in the National Health Service. Those were the days when Kenneth Clarke (who later became a cigarette salesman and is currently UK Minister of Justice) was introducing NHS “reforms”. An awful lot of cant was disgorged to try to hide the fact that the “hidden agenda” was to privatize the NHS under the guise of making it more “businesslike”. The reports I wrote, which,( in order to please our “team leader” who was obsessed with cant phrases like “leading-edge initiatives”) were full to the brim with meaningless phrases and were published by Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. If anyone comes across one of my reports, please do me a favour and burn it!
In those days, it was called “management speak”. It got worse under the Blair administration and continues to thrive today. Orwell spotted cant long ago and commented: “As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems to be able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: Prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house”.
What is sinister about this is not that it is simply a matter of inability to write clearly, or a foolish desire to impress by following a fashion. There is a deliberate aim to obfuscate, to exert power by using an esoteric mode of discourse that the unchosen ones cannot hope to understand. This is bad for democracy. Opacity, false complexity and meaninglessness serve a purpose.
Cardinal Newman acknowledged the danger of precision: “Mistiness is the mother of safety. Your safe man in the Church of England is he who steers his course between the Scylla of ‘Aye’ and the Charybdis of ‘No’ along the channel of ‘No meaning’.”
A cliché is a phrase that has become worn out and emptied of meaning by over-frequent and careless use. Many clichés probably started life as folk-wisdom. They can, on occasion, be useful common currency. They communicate simple ideas economically and are often a means of conveying general sociability. A cliché is an analogy characterised by its overuse.
Brian O’Nolan’s day job was working for the Irish government as a senior civil servant. In his free time he was a morose drunk who wrote very funny books under the pseudonym Flann O’Brien. He also wrote a column for the Irish times under the name, Myles na gCopaleen. One of his themes in the column was war on stale language. Here is an excerpt: “The Myles na gCopaleen Catechism of Cliché. A unique compendium of all that is nauseating in contemporary writing. Compiled without regard to expense or the feelings of the public. A harrowing survey of sub-literature and all that is pseudo, mal-dicted and calloused in the underworld of print.”
In the world of management-corporate-NGO-speak, perpetrators of linguistic barbarity often seem proud of their utterances as if they have newly-minted the cliché themselves and are presenting it to a grateful world for the first time. How often have you heard people referring, without a hint of shame, to ”a level playing field”. That seems to be a reference to team sports like football. There have been football clubs who did not have a level pitch – I think Yeovil Town was one of them. When my team, Gloucester City, played away at Yeovil, any disadvantage that Gloucester suffered was not because of the fact that they had to play uphill. At half-time the sides swap ends, so for 50% of the game Yeovil would have to play uphill.
I have had the dubious honour of editing papers for an NGO. This meant being exposed to the horrors of academic jargon as well as NGO miasma. An example of a newly-constructed metaphor follows. It cannot be criticized for staleness. However, it is not a helpful image: “The first view often permits the ‘ideological pole’ of the continuum to speak too loud whereas the second view typically bends too much towards the ‘material pole’.” Are they speaking Polish?
Here’s a good one I saw recently: “A holistic strategy for community-driven development.” What has that got to do with the price of fish? Not as drastic as a holistic, cradle-to- grave approach.
We all like to at least appear to be against sin. Who could complain about the noble aim of “enhancing development practitioners’ facilitation skills for the capacity-building of gender-disadvantaged women”? Go for it!
NGOs are very fond of the word “sustainable”. The late Alexander Cockburn noticed this in a signing
statement made by President Obama: “Over the last several years, my Administration has developed an effective, sustainable framework for the detention, interrogation and trial of suspected terrorists…” Sustainable torture?
I have read that in a spirit of “participation”, NGO victims in Sierra Leone now have words like “empowerment”, “capacity-building” and “stakeholder” “governance”, “civil society, “facilitators’ and “disadvantaged” tripping off their tongues. These people have clearly undergone a “paradigm shift”. A blogger recently commented that these people “view the aid industry as a profit-making machine, … one needs to know – the language to be able to understand when opportunities arise and how to benefit.”
Rebecca Leaman writes: “The buzzwords of business-speak have evolved, in part, as a shorthand way of letting us refer to complex ideas with just a few words. Every sector and every interest group has its own special vocabulary and the non-profit sector is no different. Given that it’s the very nature of human languages to evolve over time… it is what it is. Where’s the point in fighting that losing battle, when we could be using jargon to our advantage instead?”
NGO-speak is a common language only in that it reinforces a sense of community between NGO workers, to the exclusion of the rest of humanity. Irish president Michael D Higgins, addressing the “voluntary sector” said he has searched for the word “citizen”, in their communications but instead
encountered references to “service users” and “clients” and “client bases”… This sets off a certain alert in my own mind. Is the language doing the same damage in all of the sectors, and is it not one of the functions of critical thinking to find an appropriate language to deal with the purposes which one is pursuing? Higgins said there should be a “language of citizenship” rather than one of bureaucracy . “That in turn is based on a philosophical assumption about the worth of the person you are dealing with.”Higgins is a poet. Remember that Shelley claimed that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”.
A business training website says this: “Jargon can be a powerful tool for creating images in the minds of your associates or customers. Get to know some jargon terms and learn to use them properly, in the right context and at the right time in the conversation or presentation.”
That’s how they manipulate us and mess with our minds.