Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Race to the Bottom of English

Sixty-three years ago, in his essay Politics and the English Language, George Orwell railed against the importation of "foreign terms" and "jargon words" such as "expedite" or "clandestine" into writing when already-existing English equivalents could do the job just as well. He was writing in favor of clarity and precision, but I can't help but mildly disagree with him in some respects. Importation is what the English language does. It is a mutt of a tongue, its heritage reaching back into dozens of languages within Europe and without, and bringing new words into it is nothing to be ashamed of. William Shakespeare was as much of an importer as a playwright, bringing more new words into the language than anyone else in his time.

Understanding is always important, but it should not be at the expense of the English language's variety and vocabulary. The ability to say the same thing through different methods, with each word carrying a different set of implications, is one of the aspects that helps to make English such fertile ground for creative pursuits.

The problem, as always, comes with attempts to increase understanding at the expense of precision.

On Monday, BBC NEWS reported on a survey of 5,000 British technology users and what it found to be the ten most confusing technology words. The Plain English Campaign has seized upon the findings as yet another brick for its wall to cast the English language in a shadow of simplicity. Of the terms, some of them - "PC Suite," for one - are understandably a bit baroque if you're encountering them for the first time, but others aren't. Phone jack? Digital TV? Desktop?

There comes a point, in my opinion, where unfamiliarity with a "confusing" technical term ceases to be evidence of the term's opacity, and instead becomes a badge of ignorance. Phone jacks have been around for decades. The concept of a desktop should be familiar to anyone who uses a computer, and considering that it's 2009 and not 1989, that's probably most of the population. Understanding is always good, but the fact remains that these are precise technical terms that exist for a reason, and could only be replaced by elaborate circumlocutions - as if that's better.

The problem I see with this is that we're catering to the ignorant, to the unmotivated, to the people who think learning new words is "too much work." That is the last thing that we should be doing. The vitality of a language is partially based on the strength and flexibility of its speakers, and we should be endeavoring to make sure that the depths of the English language are more widely known to its speakers. This is not the first time this situation has come up in the United Kingdom; last year, some of its local council governments banned the official use - in speech and writing - of words so baroque as "vice versa" and "via."

At the time, the BBC reported that a spokesman for the Plain English Campaign "said the ban might stop people confusing the Latin abbreviation e.g." - exempli gratia, meaning "for example" - "with the word 'egg'."

From where I see it, even if you've never come across e.g. before, if despite the context in which it appears you think it means "egg," the problem does not lie in the language you're reading. Maybe we should call it a PEBDAC error - Problem Exists Between Document and Chair.

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