No doubt you've all heard the news that some local councils are banning the use by their employees of common expressions of Latin origin because they are 'elitist and discriminatory' and may confuse immigrants. Bournemouth Council, for instance, has listed 19 terms it no longer considers acceptable, including "ad hoc", "bona fide", "status quo", "vice versa" and even "via". Its list of alternatives includes 'for this special purpose', in place of "ad hoc" and 'existing condition' or 'state of things', instead of "status quo".
Classical scholars are up in arms. Mary Beard, a Cambridge professor of classics, said "This is absolutely bonkers and the linguistic equivalent of ethnic cleansing. English is and always has been a language full of foreign words. It has never been an ethnically pure language", while Dr.Peter Jones, co-founder of the charity Friends of Classics, said "This sort of thing sends out the message that language is about nothing more than the communication of very basic information in the manner of a railway timetable. But it is about much more than that. The great strength of English is that it has a massive infusion of Latin. We have a very rich lexicon with almost two sets of words for everything. To try to wipe out the richness does a great disservice to the language. It demeans it."
Anyone who, like The GOS, has a high regard for the power and flexibility of the English language, must also be strongly opposed to this attempt by ignorant people to bend it to their political will. Their ignorance lies in the fact that they don't realise that these expressions are, by long custom and usage, perfectly normal parts of English. Most of them can be found in the dictionary, along with all the other words of foreign origin - will Bournemouth Council also ban "bungalow" because it comes from India, or "aardvark" because it's Afrikaans? What about "coffee" which is either Ethiopian or Arabic? What about "jazz" or "safari" or "zombie", also from Africa?
"Albino", "baroque" and "caramel" are Portuguese, "Amen", "jubilee" and "sodomy" are Hebrew, "bluff", "brawl", "buoy" and "cruise" are Dutch, and the number of French words we use is quite astonishing - "abbreviation", "ability", "abnormal", "aboard", "abolish", "abomination", "abortive", "absence", "absolute", "absorb", "abstain", "abstract", "abstruse", "absurd", "abuse" - and that's just the ones beginning "ab"! Of course most of these are doubly "elitist and discriminatory" because they all have Latin roots too.
Then what about all the good old Anglo-Saxon words? Will they ban those too, because nobody speaks Anglo-Saxon any more?
No, it's just ignorance, plain and simple. These people don't understand the first thing about the language they claim to speak and dare to pontificate about. If you want to see more about foreign words adopted into English, click here.
To be fair, not all local councils are tarred with the same brush (come on, Bournemouth, what will your immigrants make of that expression? Want to ban that too?). Harrow Council announced last month that it was restoring traditional terms for some of its staff. The worker handing out parking tickets, for example, is a traffic warden, not a "civil enforcement officer." And for Harrow, banning Latin is a step too far. "I would have thought banning phrases which have been part of the texture of our language for centuries is frankly the least of a town hall's problems when it comes to communicating with the public," said Paul Osborn, the council's head of communications.
Good for him. However, the real purpose of this page is not to pillory these ill-educated (that's latin, by the way, from "e" - "out of", and "duco" - "I lead") jobsworths, but to draw your attention to another bunch of lackwits who claim to know better than the rest of us.
Almost the only body to have supported the councils is the Plain English Campaign, who congratulated them on introducing the bans. The Plain English spokesman (spokesperson, spokeslady, spokesidiot or whatever …) Marie Clair, said "If you look at the diversity of all our communities you have got people for whom English is a second language."
This is an astonishing bit of muddled language, given that the Plain English Campaign's motto is "Fighting for crystal-clear communication since 1979". What does Marie Clair mean? Is she implying that if we don't look at the said diversity, all the people who have English as a second language will vanish? And what is the exact import of "you have got"? Whether I look at the diversity or not, I don't got anybody, English speaking or not. Nobody owns people, not since Wilberforce.
Marie Clair went on "At the same time it is important to remember that the national literacy level is about 12 years old and the vast majority of people hardly ever use these terms. It is far better to use words people understand."
OK, Marie, why don't you practise what you preach? Who is this 12 year old person called "national literacy level"? Or do you mean that we've only been attempting to measure national literacy for the last 12 years? Or could it possibly be that you meant to say "the average literacy level in this country is the same as that of the average 12 year old child", and if that's what you did mean, why the bloody hell didn't you say it? Or are we to understand that according to your campaign, "plain English" is an ugly, awkward language full of fuzzy ambiguity?
Marie, the reason many of these Latin expressions are now part of the English language is that they express a meaning exactly, concisely and without ambiguity. Try saying "ex officio" in less than a dozen words. Already one council that has banned the expression "ad hoc" has told its officers to use "for this special purpose" instead, while another has interpreted "ad hoc" as "improvised". Not quite the same.
For the record, "ad hoc" means just that - "ad hoc". There is no exact English equivalent.
Local councils don't have a monopoly on dreadful use of English, of course. Try this little gem from Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, giving evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights: "If we face a situation as a government where both technology and our use of technology means that some of the most important capability that law enforcement uses at the moment is likely to be eroded, then we have to consider what is the most appropriate way to deal with that technologically (number one) and what are the appropriate legal safeguards to put around the way in which we deal with that in the future to safeguard that capability".
She promised to expand on this in a consultation paper that she will publish in the New Year - let's hope she gets someone else to help her write it.
A brilliant bit of language came from someone at the BBC this week - and we do mean brilliant, we're not being sarcastic for a change.
Jeremy Clarkson was in trouble with the National Association for the Dim and Humourless (Daily Mail Chapter) for his comments about lorry drivers. He said "This is a hard job and I'm not just saying that to win favour with lorry drivers, it's a hard job. Change gear, change gear, change gear, check mirror, murder a prostitute, change gear, change gear … That's a lot of effort in a day."
We saw this programme, and thought it was very funny. It was also quite informative - we had not realised just how hard it is to drive a lorry, and we will in future have a bit more respect for those who do it every day.
It's true that two of the most notorious murderers of prostitutes, Peter Sutcliffe and Steve Wright, were both lorry drivers, and one might hazard a little theory that being in the cab all day, moving steadily through the world but not quite being part of it, is a job that might appeal to a certain mentality. Still, you've only got to mention a thing and some people will be offended by it. The BBC received 517 complaints about the joke, with Ofcom also confirming that it had received calls. But it is understood that the industry regulator is likely to rule that the comments did not fall foul of the broadcasting code.
The brilliant bit was the quote from a BBC spokeswoman, who said "This particular reference was used to comically exaggerate and make ridiculous an unfair urban myth about the world of lorry driving, and was not intended to cause offence." Lovely. Pithy, forceful, concise and difficult to argue with. I wouldn't have thought of that in a thousand years. I hadn't got past "You need to get out more, you humourless prats!"
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