Garry Linnell: Our massacre of the English language in the name of jargon has a dark side
Our acceptance of more and more jargon is not just annoying. Photo: Getty
Let’s start with an apology.
For years we have been accusing New Zealanders of murdering vowels. To all you Kiwis, sorry about that.
Slaughtering a few words is nothing compared to the absolute massacre of the English language now being carried out by Australians.
A nation that once prided itself on being succinct and direct has descended into a pit of drivel and meaningless jargon.
People no longer call you on the phone.
They reach out to you. Apparently, they need to touch base.
No one simply lives their life any more. Instead, we are all on a journey. Sometimes those journeys involve taking a deep dive that will deliver several key learnings.
But going forward and at the end of the day, does it really matter?
You bet it does.
The distortion of our vocabulary and the neutering of words and phrases goes way beyond some clueless twat in upper management clinging to jargon because it makes them appear important and somehow knowledgeable.
It also goes far beyond the bastardisation of the language now being perpetrated by marketers and companies trying to turn the old into the new.
Did you know Speedo no longer sells swimming caps? They are now a “hair management system”.
Amazon has labelled its Kindle a “reading container”. Nestle has referred to a water bottle as an “affordable, portable lifestyle beverage”.
No. It’s not a swimming cap. Photo: Speedo
Age of Babble-On
We live in a new era, the Age of Babble-On, a time of double-speak and patronising slogans designed to either deliberately confuse us – or conceal a darker truth.
As The New Daily pointed out earlier this week, recent research has shown how jargon used by employers in job ads often confuses prospective employees and puts them off applying for advertised positions.
Phrases like “opening the kimono” (being honest) and “leveraging our assets” (attempting to lift profits) might be laughable – and a justifiable reason not to work for a company employing language like that.
But this gobbledygook is not just restricted to the corporate sector.
State governments now install “safety cameras” on our roads. New taxes are called “deficit levies” and “co-payments”.
And this is why words matter.
When we permit our language to be tempered and distorted, we are only a few steps away from allowing it to be used as a cloak to disguise something far more insidious.
The Nazis used “enhanced interrogation” as a euphemism for torturing their prisoners, a phrase later adopted by the Americans to describe their waterboarding of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.
The Germans were backed by the most powerful propaganda unit the world had seen and became expert at massaging the vernacular.
Officers in Hitler’s death squads responsible for the extermination of Jewish prisoners recorded mass executions as “evacuations” and “exits”.
When George W Bush became US president in 2000, the White House wanted to take the sting out of growing concerns about global warming. So it began to refer to the impact of rising greenhouse gas emissions as “climate change” – a less scary term that has now become common parlance.
Operating on the same assumption that if you use a word or phrase often enough it sticks, the casino operators in Las Vegas in the 1990s stopped using the word “gambling” and replaced it with the much lighter and family-friendly “gaming”.
Las Vegas is all about gaming, not gambling. Photo: Getty
They were so successful that even small pubs with three poker machines in country towns now call themselves “gaming venues”.
Political parties and big companies spend millions of dollars these days testing words and phrases in focus groups, slicing and dicing them until they believe they have found a palatable and creditable way of selling whatever message they want to get across.
So next time you see or hear a phrase that jars – or just sounds completely ridiculous – make a stand.
When someone offers to open their kimono for you, tell them to keep it closed.
In this war on words, it’s time for all of us to disambiguate, circle back and take a granular look at those doing their best to smother the language.
In high school science you may have been taught that Earth is just a rock made out of nickel, iron, magnesium, potassium and silicon.
What they didn’t tell you is that at its core, the most common element is bullshit.
Garry Linnell was director of News and Current Affairs for the Nine network in the mid-2000s. He has also been editorial director for Fairfax and is a former editor of The Daily Telegraph and The Bulletin magazine.