Why don’t we say what we mean anymore?

July 10, 2016

Cleaver, a barrister, wants to impose fines on people who use the word “correct” when responding to a question

I fear that English is going to follow Sanskrit and become a dead language. It’s happening now actually.

Why don’t we say what we mean anymore? Maybe it was because the federal election campaign went for eight years, I’m not sure, but I have noticed that a lot of people, not just politicians, are using words incorrectly or completely out of context.

Should we fine people who say “correct”?

It’s one of the many reasons I’m in love with Cleaver Greene, the gloriously flawed anti-hero of the ABC series Rake, played to perfection by Richard Roxburgh. Cleaver, a barrister, is a superbly gifted orator and wants to impose fines on people who use the word “correct” when responding to a question (and sometimes not even a question). He also had a low tolerance for “narrative”.

I was so relieved to see Paul Keating pop up during the tail end of the campaign if for no other reason than to hear someone use words people could understand. He’s never been one to mince his words and has always delivered them with the subtlety of a bull in an antique clock shop.

Who could forget this Old Charmer’s acid tongued assessments of some of his former foes?

On Peter Costello: “The thing about poor old Costello is he is all tip and no iceberg.”

On John Hewson: “(His performance) is like being flogged with a warm lettuce.”

On Andrew Peacock: “I suppose that the honourable gentleman’s hair, like his intellect, will recede into the darkness.”

The best books about language

Watson's Dictionary of Weasel WordsIn 1992, Keating’s advisor and speech writer was Don Watson, the author of some of my favourite books about language. Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language and Watson’s Dictionary of Weasel Words. Published in 2005, it could have been written last week.

Weasel Words was both cringe worthy and hysterical; it encouraged readers to reject what he perceived to be the meaningless corporate and government jargon spreading throughout Australia.

Some of the unforgettable examples include when your boss asks you to commit to an involuntary career event (i.e. you’re fired), and hospitals referring to negative patient outcomes (i.e. you’re dead).

Trendy or not-so-trendy jargon

I remember going to a workshop a few years ago and quite frankly I didn’t understand half of what the guest speaker said. I do recall a number of key phrases – weasel words – such as: “we need to ‘ground truth’ the skills deficit” and “there is some double jobbing occurring so we should ‘Tiger Team’ that”. What THE?

I get more sense from my seven year old nephew who asked me the other day if flowers came from flour. There’s some logic to this.

My friend Jane was in the same workshop and we still use some of those banal, meaningless terms when we’re out on the town and run across painful, self-important people.

Special mentions also need to go to equally ridiculous “in this space” and doing “deep dive sessions”.

I’m with Don Watson all the way. On his website, he has people email in examples so we can all have a laugh at what passes for corporate language these days. If you’re in need of a laugh have a look.

*Tiger team = panel of experts

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Alexandria Bernard
With a successful 20+ year career in media and communications, Alex’s media portfolio includes contracts as a radio and television presenter (612 ABC, 4BC, Channel 9 and Network Ten) and as a feature writer for bmag and Brisbane Times.

Alex's voice and face may be familiar to you from her voiceover and television commercial work. She has been featured in national radio and TV advertising campaigns, corporate videos and has been a regular MC for major events.