Anybody who loves clear writing knows – and loves – Don Watson. I took the opportunity to hear him speak as part of Sydney Ideas, the University of Sydney’s public events program last week. His books on language include Weasel Words, Bendable Learnings and Death Sentence: The decay of public language.
This question-and-answer session focused on language in political discourse, about which there is plenty to lament. We’ve seen a profound change in news media in the last while, Watson argued, which has changed news into a combat between talking heads. And while there has always been lies and trickery in politics, we are now less able to judge truth and lies as politics has become so tribal. The suggestibility of the public has risen at the same rate as the lies.
And along came Trump
Trump, of course, had to be discussed. Watson pointed out that he ‘didn’t drop from the sky’: Bannon et al figured out that what we saw on our screens was what was important. All he had to do was make sure Trump was the centre of the story. And we can agree that Trump has been pretty good at keeping himself there, front and centre day after frustrating day.
So what’s the answer?
The refreshing thing about hearing this witty, accomplished and intelligent speaker and writer is that he didn’t pretend to have the answers. Is it education? That’s part of it. Better journalism? It would help, and it would go a long way if journalists bothered to consult academics when writing their stories. Are independent candidates making things better? At least they save us from the party operatives who are presently running the show, and make us begin to think again.
And those weasel words?
I discovered that a book is to be referred to as a ‘cultural externality’. When he was asked what his (least) favourite weasel words were. Watson listed:
impact, and more particularly impactful learnings
window of opportunity
appropriate and/or inappropriate
You can contribute your own to Don Watson’s website. The next day I noticed this one in Sydney’s Hyde Park:
‘For your safety we advise you not to visit the park during or just after heavy rain and strong winds because of the risk of tree failure.’
If I’m not wrong, that’s a piece of tree falling on your head, whether anybody’s there to hear it or not.
We hate it, we laugh about it, and then sometimes we hear it come from our own mouths. The horrible jargon that was once confined to office life slowly ekes its way into everyday language. So ‘leverage’ started in high finance, and now it’s everywhere. The first time I heard somebody say they’d ‘reached out’ to a colleague, I was alarmed; now I think I might have said it in a meeting, once. I’ve created a list of alternatives for some of the worst words.
An A to Z of unbearable jargon
I bought this book because I do find office jargon unbearable. I also love a good laugh, and this provides an A to Z of amusing entries. Here’s one of my favourites.
Going forward helpfully implies a kind of thrustingly strategic process, and moving forward perhaps even more so – even though none is likely to be made as long as the work-day is made up of funereal meetings where people say things like ‘going forward’.
Who Touched Base in My Thought Shower, p. 91
The alternatives to ‘going forward’, ‘in future’ or ‘from now on’, don’t have the implication that the slate is being wiped clean. Using them might sound rather like owning up to a mistake. ‘We won’t charge dead customers in future’ has a different ring to it.
If you write in your job, get your hands on this book. Every time you want to use a tired office cliche, such as bandwidth, leverage or deliverables. You’ll find an alternative. Or if you work in an office and want to know what a brown-bag session is, or what they really meant by saying they would ‘open the kimono’, look it up.
Managerial language, suitspeak, weasel words… it’s hard to say exactly what we dislike about them, and why we groan inwardly when we hear one. They start as buzzwords, then worm their way into our consciousness and become part of our own language. When it’s time to write a report or blog post, we can’t find an alternative.
They won’t work in every situation, because clear writing depends largely on context and audience. Try them when next you write an article for social media or copy for your website. You might find your prose starts to cut through the noise, like an opera singer at a football game.
The examples I’ve used were collected over two days on LinkedIn and Facebook, plus a couple of websites I routinely consult.
But what’s wrong with these terms?
1. Sometimes your readers/customers won’t understand the terminology you use because it’s just not part of their world. Some of them are just plain hard to understand.
2. Their tone is often evasive and indirect. Most of the time, plain, direct language would be more suited to what you’re trying to convey. Here’s a real example:
‘[xxx] gives you and your account manager visibility over which elements of your content marketing are actually working by collecting data across all your activities.’
If they said something like the following I would understand what they propose to do for me – and I’d be more likely to feel I could work with them.
You and your account manager can see what parts of your content marketing are effective, because we measure them for you.
And, most importantly,
3. It makes you sound just like everybody else. Content marketing is everywhere. Just one platform, LinkedIn, had 467 million users at last count. That’s a lot of competition for attention. Why sound like a corporate drone when you can say things in a fresh, original style?
Words to stop using. Just don’t.
Innovate. Everybody’s innovating so routinely that the term has become meaningless. Same for passionate, iconic, savvy and unicorns. Challenges and solutions. They’re tired and worn out, so give them a rest.
Today, 16 October, is Dictionary Day. The date honours Noah Webster, who created the first American dictionary in 1829. (So I probably should have spelled that ‘honors’.)
Graminaceous: one who devours grammar?
Dictionaries are a vital tool for writers and editors. And they can be heaps of fun for anybody who has the slightest interest in words. Recently I read The Word Detective by John Simpson, who was the chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. It combines a memoir of his time at the dictionary – which included the move to online – with fascinating historical asides about the history of words in English. Did you know that balderdash was probably first a foamy drink with its origins in Scandinavia? Or that we have 97 words for hell?
If entering an eternal hell seems better than reading a 360-page tome on dictionaries, try celebrating dictionary day like this:
Open your favourite dictionary at random and pick a word you have never read or used before. Now vow to use it before midnight.
Mine is lacustrine: referring or relating to lakes.
If you don’t like this game, go take a lacustrine leap.
Translation technology is useful, but should not replace learning languages
For many years now, there have been calls for Australians to learn languages, particularly Asian languages, as the world economy pivots to the Asia-Pacific. But the number of students learning languages in Australia has remained stubbornly low.
Rapid improvements in machine translation and speech recognition technologies in recent years appear to offer an easy way out. While problems still arise, the use of AI has led to remarkable improvements in the quality of Google translations, and increasingly accurate speech recognition technologies are now widely available.
Drawing these two technologies together, Google has announced the upcoming launch of wireless headphones that feature real-time language translation. With the advent of these technologies, do we still need to learn other languages?
These are exciting times. Technological advancements are enabling us to communicate with people all around the world without needing to have a common language. So I can now use such devices to communicate with speakers of Chinese, Hungarian or Hindi. They will hear my speech translated into their language; they can speak back to me in their language; and I will have this translated into English for me in real-time. But the ability to communicate in one’s own language with speakers of other languages, without having any knowledge of how languages work or cross-cultural differences in the ways we communicate, opens up a can of worms.
For a start, linguists tell us that word meanings don’t always match across different languages. What goes in is sometimes not the same as what comes out.
US President Donald Trump’s attempts to communicate with the wider world are instructive in that respect. Earlier in the year, it was reported that Trump told a European Commission meeting that “the Germans are bad, very bad”. This caused much consternation in the German media, as they debated whether Trump meant the Germans are “böse” (which has connotations of evil, malicious intent) or “schlecht” (meaning they are not doing the right thing).
This is not simply a problem of mistranslation. The point is that word meanings don’t match up precisely across languages. This has important implications for international business and relations, but it’s something that is masked if we take translations at face value.
Another basic feature of communication is that we generally mean much more than we say. Although language plays an important role in communication, very often what is implied or left unsaid is more important than what is said. These inferences are not easily managed in machine translation, because they differ across speakers and cultures.
A good example of this is that it’s common among speakers of (Mandarin) Chinese to first refuse an offer of food when visting someone’s house, especially if one isn’t that close. Such refusals are a way of testing the waters as to whether the offer is genuine. Accepting an offer too quickly may also be regarded as impolite. Offers and refusals are therefore often repeated before guests finally accept.
The point is that different cultures prefer different ways of speaking, and that means we do things through languages in different ways. These different ways of speaking give rise to different inferences depending on the language in question.
New technologies will no doubt change how which we approach the learning of languages in exciting ways, just as the way we learn maths changed when calculators became readily available. But we can’t outsource deep cross-linguistic and cross-cultural knowledge to apps, and the need to learn languages hasn’t changed.
Indeed, it seems to be on the rise as we enter an increasingly globalised economy. According to a report on “The New Work Order” by The Foundation for Young Australians, advertisements for jobs requiring bilingual skills grew by 181% from 2012 to 2015. And a report by the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, California, on “Future Work Skills 2020” identifies cross-cultural competency as one of ten key skills for the future workforce.
Learning languages allows us to experience different ways of thinking. It enables us to develop the ability to change our perspective on what is going on in any particular interaction, and to adapt ourselves to the mindsets of others. It also helps us to understand ourselves better and our own mindsets. Real cross-cultural understanding helps us build deeper relationships.
No matter what advances we make in machine translation or speech recognition, technology cannot change the fundamental nature of human languages and their role in communication. While such technologies are an increasingly useful tool, they can no more replace the deep cross-cultural knowledge that comes with learning languages than the advent of calculators meant we no longer needed to learn maths.
However, such technologies are now widely accessible. The upshot is that developing an awareness of differences between languages and the ways in which they underpin key cross-cultural differences is something that every Australian will have to develop. Rather than making the need for learning languages redundant, we are in fact entering a world in which awareness of differences across languages and cross-cultural competence is a must for all.