Changing Language: The Need to Keep Up

Words are powerful. They shape how we function, they influence what we think and they change how we perceive the world around us. The astonishing thing is that they have the power to do so without many of us even realizing it.

As has been noted by many commentators, including in a recent article in the Economist, the language is constantly changing and evolving. New words are coined or come into use, sometimes playfully and practically, and others are retired. I was saddened, for example, to read of the apparent decline in relevance of the word ‘whom’; while the other somewhat gleefully celebrates its anticipated demise, one wonders to whom her joyful celebration is targeted. At the same time, we have seen new words enter the language: ‘tweet’, ‘friend’ as a verb and ‘follow’ as something you do online being among them. And other terms creatively jump into use because they are a fun and creative way to express a familiar concept with a more unique emphasis; my favourite example of this in recent times would be author Cory Doctorow’s coining of the term ‘embiggened’.

What the previous references discuss, however, are different viewpoints on trying to make the language more useful. As noted in the Economist piece, some are given to embrace these trends while others feel the need to rigorously police the purity of the language. Personally, I’m a little on the fence, and my view – as usual – tends to be one of ‘it depends’. I’m not generally in favour of verbifying nouns (see what I did there?), and hold up ‘solutionize’ as a particularly heinous example. But I also recognize that the world continues to evolve at a rapid clip, and the language needs to keep up if we are going to know what we are talking about.

Where I run crashing into a brick wall, however, is when language is used to obfuscate, confuse and diminish meaning; in other words, when it becomes less  useful. Although, arguably, in politics the more you can speak while in fact saying very little is considered a valuable skill. Bureaucracies, and specialist professions, tend to be the most open for criticism on this front. My favourite recent example appears on buses run by Lothian Bus Lines in Edinburgh, announcing ‘revised’ fares. Why, one wonders, might we not more clearly highlight ‘fare increase’? Would that not be clearer? Would that not help riders to remember to dig in their pockets and purses for that extra 10p piece? The answer, one would presume, would be that delightful buzzword of political correctness: ‘optics’. Which is just another way of saying, “that wouldn’t look good, would it?”

And yet coming up for the worst criticism has to be the information technology industry, which seems to go out of its way to coin new buzzwords and catch-phrases to make the same point. Only in an IT meeting could you have someone say, “We need to stream the onboarding of requests to manage scalability while we up our bandwidth and build capacity for greater cycles,” and have a chance of people understanding what you are talking about. And that, arguably, is a far less opaque statement than some I have heard.

It is, however, completely unnecessary to talk like this.  Some do it in the hope that it makes them seem more knowledgeable and impressive. Consultants do it with the presumption that they can charge more money. The collective tribe adopts the language so that there is a clear delineation between ‘us’ and ‘them’. And the rest of the world gets more confused while they read Dilbert over their morning coffee.

In the words of Albert Einstein: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

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