Monthly Archives: November, 2011

Language of diplomacy

No wonder English is considered by many to be ideal for diplomacy. With a greater range of synonyms than other languages (from which we’ve pinched so many of our words) we can offer listeners a stream of statements that bear more than one meaning. We can lie outright while sounding magnanimous.

Consider our capacity for diplomacy in recruitment. Some people don’t share my misgivings about providing a reference for someone they don’t respect. When placed in a position of being named as a referee, some people would prefer not to give offence, so they use English as cover. They may not want to lie but nor do they want to provide damning comments. The job candidate could be a friend, and perhaps the referee wants to be able to look that person in the eye without guilt when next they meet. English comes to the rescue. Here are examples of language helping to hide the truth:

  • I enthusiastically recommend this candidate without qualification (She has none).
  • I am pleased to say that this candidate is a former colleague of mine (It took some effort to get rid of him).
  • I can assure you that no person would be better for the job (Leaving the post vacant would be better than hiring her).
  • I would urge you to waste no time in making this candidate an offer of employment (You would be wasting your time).
  • I cannot say enough good things about this candidate or recommend this person too highly. (I cannot say any good things about him so I can’t recommend him).
  • An employee like her is hard to find (She’s never here, often absent, goes missing).
  • He’s an unbelievable worker (Don’t trust a word he says).
  • You would be very fortunate to get this person to work for you (He never lifted a finger when I employed him).

The language of diplomacy in politics is also on display daily in news reports.

  • ‘Fact finding mission’ usually entails a junket followed by a report that reaches the same conclusion as the one taken when deciding to go on the mission in the first place.
  • A ‘team player’ is a party member anxious about being re-nominated or in no position to mount an effective challenge to an incumbent.
  • A candidate whose grandfather was a ‘robber baron’ is now descended from a ‘captain of industry’.
  • ‘She favours revenue maximisation’ means that she’s keen on increasing taxes or cost-cutting, or both.
  • ‘A spry politician’ is someone too old to be a candidate but showing remarkable tenacity instead of going quietly into retirement. Nobody under seventy is ever described as ‘spry’.
  • And then there’s everyone’s favourite, the politician ‘leaving politics to spend more time with his family,’ which usually means ‘sacked’ or ‘disgraced’ or both.

English as diplomatic language also features in sports commentary. Here’s a selection of terms used to say one thing but mean another:

  • A ‘utility player’ is a kind way to describe someone who will never get asked for an autograph.
  • A ‘scrappy’ player is someone undersized, not especially skilled but dogged, and not always sportsmanlike.
  • A real ‘competitor’ is another way of saying ‘utter bastard’.
  • ‘Hard man’ is just a polite way of describing a thug who uses brute strength in place of skill.
  • A ‘physical’ player is the diplomatic alternative for ‘total barbarian’ or ‘berserker’.
  • And a team ‘focused on rebuilding’ is a group of individuals who couldn’t win at Solitaire.

Aren’t we polite? Who could take offence at these?


Mislaid in translation

Languages are not necessarily versions of one another; they exist unto themselves, with their own inalienable right to idiom. Sometimes mishearing or mistransscription is due to a misplaced modifier or a skewed construction: verb in the wrong place or misunderstood as a noun. But sometimes the concept just doesn’t want to translate.

When Gerber began to sell baby food in Africa, the company used their US packaging with a beautiful baby on the label. But in Africa, due to poor literacy levels for their customers, companies traditionally use the label to depict what’s inside.

‘Come alive with the Pepsi Generation’ translates into Mandarin as ‘Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave’.

General Motors did not sell many Nova cars in Latin America. In Spanish, ‘no va’ means ‘it doesn’t go.’

Scandinavian manufacturer Electrolux used the following in a US ad campaign: ‘Nothing sucks like an Electrolux.’

As for hotel signs, the following examples have been allegedly spotted in various cities around the world.

  • You are welcome to visit the cemetery where famous Russian and Soviet composers, artists and writers are buried daily except Thursday.
  • The lift is being fixed for the next day. During that time we regret that you will be unbearable.
  • Ladies are requested not to have children at the bar.
  • Ladies may have a fit upstairs.
  • Because of the impropriety of entertaining guests of the opposite sex in the bedroom, it is suggested that the lobby be used for this purpose.
  • Please do not feed the animals. If you have any suitable food, give it to the guard on duty.
  • We will take your bags and send them in all directions.
  • Fur coats made for ladies from their own skin.
  • Roasted duck let loose and beef rashers beaten up in the country people’s fashion.
  • Dresses for street walking.
  • Order summer suits early. In a big rush we will execute customers in strict rotation.
  • Please leave your values at the front desk.

But the following have no excuse. Each one is from the USA. How can they possibly have become lost in translation?

  • 15 men’s wool suits, $10. They won’t last an hour!
  • We buy junk and sell antiques.
  • Why go elsewhere and be cheated when you can come here?
  • Kids with gas eat free.
  •  We will sell gasoline to anyone in a glass container.
  • Lose All Your Weight: $198.
  • All food must pass through the cashier before entering the dining room.
  • Tenants not paid by the 15th of the month will be terminated.
  • Good clean dancing every night but Sunday.
  • Our motto is to give our customers the lowest possible prices and workmanship.

Mistranslation from English into English. How can you blame the translator?

Embracing Ambiguity

Why isn’t ‘phonetic’ spelt the way it sounds?

If a vegetarian eats vegetables what does a humanitarian eat?

Can you imagine a world without hypothetical situations?

I love finding ambiguity in language, when nouns become confused with verbs and adjectives, and multi-tasking by prepositions. The English language lacks case endings to help us, so the placement of words becomes paramount. Accordingly, a sentence such as the following may give rise to unintended humour: ‘The women included their husbands and their children in their potluck suppers.’

Here are some of my favourite ambiguities. A few I’ve overheard on buses and in cafés. Some I have collected; others are just legendary.

He saw that gas can explode.

I will bring my bike tomorrow if it looks nice in the morning.

These chickens are too hot to eat.

Students hate annoying teachers.

Instruction: Press ANY key to continue.   Question: Where do I find the ANY key?

Police help dog bite victim.

The Duchess handled the launching beautifully, confidently smashing the champagne against the prow.  The crowd cheered as she majestically slid down the greasy runway into the sea.

Yoko Ono will talk about her husband John Lennon who was killed in an interview with Barbara Walters (quoted in The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker, 1994).

Great care must be exercised in tying horses to trees, as they are apt to bark.

Hole found in changing room wall. Police are looking into it.

We do not tear your clothing with machinery; we do it carefully by hand.

The sewer expansion project is nearing completion but City officials are holding their breath until it is officially finished.

The bride was wearing an old lace gown that fell to the floor as she came down the aisle.

After Governor Baldridge watched the lion perform he was taken to Main Street and fed
twenty-five pounds of red meat in front of the Fox Theater.

Dr Benjamin Porter visited the school yesterday and lectured on ‘Destructive Pests’. A large number were present.

Black Panther leader Huey Newton, terming a 1974 murder charge ‘strictly a fabrication,’ said yesterday he will testify at his trial on charges of killing a prostitute against his lawyer’s advice.

Hear Paul Lucas. The complete dope on the weather.

Nude dancing took center stage on Wednesday at the U.S. Supreme Court.

The ladies of the county medical society auxiliary plan to publish a cookbook. Part of the money will go to the Samaritan Hospital to purchase a stomach pump.

Columbia, Tennessee, which calls itself the largest outdoor mule market in the world, held a mule parade yesterday headed by the Governor.

Last week Toronto policemen buried one of their own – a 22-year-old constable shot
with his own revolver in a solemn display of police solidarity rarely seen in Canada.

As a special treat for our Easter service Mrs Smith will lay an egg on the altar.

For this invalid the insurance cover was invalid.

And then there are ambiguities created by ill-conceived headlines. There’s no excuse of translation excuse for these, as they all come from English-speaking newspapers.

  • March planned for Next August
  • British Left Waffles on Falkland Islands
  • Miners Refuse to Work After Death
  • Juvenile Court to Try Shooting Defendant
  • Stolen Painting Found by Tree
  • British Union Finds Dwarves in Short Supply
  • Lingerie Shipment Hijacked–Thief Gives Police the Slip
  • Quarter of a Million Chinese Live on Water
  • Safety Experts Say School Bus Passengers Should Be Belted
  • Drunk Gets Nine Months in Violin Case
  • Survivor of Siamese Twins Joins Parents
  • Farmer Bill Dies in House
  • L.A. Voters Approve Urban Renewal by Landslide
  • Iraqi Head Seeks Arms
  • Police Begin Campaign to Run Down Jaywalkers
  • Something Went Wrong in Jet Crash, Expert Says
  • Panda Mating Fails; Veterinarian Takes Over
  • Soviet Virgin Lands Short of Goal Again
  • Teacher Strikes Idle Kids
  • Reagan Wins on Budget, But More Lies Ahead
  • Shot Off Woman’s Leg Helps Nicklaus to 66
  • Plane Too Close to Ground, Crash Probe Told
  • Two Soviet Ships Collide, One Dies
  • Two Sisters Reunited after 18 Years in Checkout Counter
  • Killer Sentenced to Die for Second Time in 10 Years
  • Cold Wave Linked to Temperatures
  • Enfields Couple Slain; Police Suspect Homicide
  • Deer Kill 17,000
  • Typhoon Rips Through Cemetery; Hundreds Dead
  • Man Struck by Lightning Faces Battery Charge
  • New Study of Obesity Looks for Larger Test Group
  • Astronaut Takes Blame for Gas in Spacecraft
  • Kids Make Nutritious Snacks
  • Chef Throws His Heart into Helping Feed Needy
  • Arson Suspect is Held in Massachusetts Fire
  • Ban on Soliciting Dead in Trotwood
  • Local High School Dropouts Cut in Half
  • Air Head Fired
  • Prosecutor Releases Probe into Undersheriff
  • Bank Drive-in Window Blocked by Board
  • Some Pieces of Rock Hudson Sold at Auction

Love it. Biggles Flies Undone. MacArthur Flies Back to Front.

Do I make myself clear?

Just because they’re not true doesn’t mean they’re no fun

There are some wonderful word derivation whoppers on the Internet. More than a few
relate to alleged acronym origins. So long as nobody takes them seriously they do no harm.

For example, it’s sometimes claimed that ‘shit’ was originally an acronym for ‘Ship High in Transit’. This myth says that in an earlier seafaring epoch, ships carried manure to prevent
them from becoming waterlogged. Crew would somehow achieve this by releasing explosive methane gas contained in the manure. A neat little theory that’s unlikely to be true. The real origin is less colourful, from the Old English word ‘scitte’ (meaning diarrhoea), related to the Dutch word ‘schijten’ and the German ‘scheisse’. What a pity truth can be so dull.

A snippet of dialogue from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance says it best:

Stoddard: You’re not going to use the story, Mr. Scott?
Scott: No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

Couldn’t have put it better. The legend is more colourful. And the myth is technicolourful. Myth always makes for livelier storytelling.

Here’s another dull debunking. There are several myths about the origin of the word ‘fuck’. One says that it emerged during the feudal era as an acronym of ‘Fornication Under Consent of the King’. Another claims that it was an acronym of ‘For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge,’ either as a sign hung around the neck of an adulterous person while being held in the stocks, or as a formal charge under common law. Great stories: if only they were true. The most likely—and less colourful—origin is an Anglo-Saxon word derived from the Norse (fukka) or the Dutch (fokken).

These false acronym claims are known as ‘backcronyms,’ a neat coinage to cover the phenomenon of fanciful attempts to rationalise word evolution via acronym-making.

Take the word ‘golf’. It’s a real pity that this one did not originate as an acronym of ‘Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden’. The more prosaic source is a Scottish term from that linguistic era known as ‘Middle Scots,’ the English-influenced tongue of the Lowlands during the late Middle Ages.

And alas, the word ‘posh’ does not come from ‘Port Out, Starboard Home’. The legend goes that certain passengers sailing on the packet boats of the Peninsular and Oriental Steamship Company (known as P & O), from Britain to India, supposedly had the advantage of a port berth on the trip to India and a starboard berth on the voyage home to England. These cabins had a sea breeze and shelter from the sun on the hottest part of the journey through the Suez Canal. The company allegedly stamped these passengers with
POSH to verify their favoured status. It’s a pity to debunk this fine tale but P & O deny that such a system ever existed and their shipping line never used such a stamp. Still, it’s more fun than the mundane reality of the word ‘posh’. Though its precise origin is uncertain, there are several contenders: via cockney slang, the Romany (a.k.a. gypsy) phrase ‘pash kara’ for half-penny (originally referring to a small amount of money then to money in general), or the Urdu term ‘safed posh’ meaning a wearer of white garments (i.e. wealthy people). Still, the backcronym attempt is more fun. So let’s print the legend.

Does it matter that the word ‘gringo’ didn’t really come from the Mexican-American war or the Wild West or any folk song (e.g. the ‘green grow’ of ‘Green Grow the Rushes’) or any ‘green go home’ insults flung at the olive-coloured uniforms of American soldiers? The most likely—and, once more, duller—explanation—is that the word was applied to
strangers or foreigners, and probably comes from the Spanish word ‘griego’ for Greek.

Same goes for ‘SOS,’ the Morse Code distress signal that has been popularly claimed to be an abbreviation of ‘Save Our Ship’ or ‘Save Our Souls’. Fanciful idea. Pity it isn’t so. Those
letters were selected solely on their Morse Code simplicity: three dots, three dashes, three dots. It was the easiest and the best known of the Code’s many permutations, the 911 (or 000) of its time. But let’s allow the backcronym to be real, especially if it catches on.

The urge to invent a backcronym is understandable. But acronyms themselves are a relatively recent phenomenon (e.g. RADAR, SONAR, LASER) and are frequently confused with initialisms (e.g. FBI, CIA, FYI, PDQ, FAQ). What a pity that attributing an acronym to older words in English simply strains at historical credibility; also it ignores the organic process of language evolution via conquest, trade, mishearing, Anglicisation, misappropriation, misattribution, new coinage, and the passage of time. But is  logic so important when we’re having fun rationalising?

Perhaps our backcronym tendency is just part of the human habit to seek explanation, an Occam’s razor urge to cut away the convoluted and the messy. Sure, language is often illogical and far from neat; and sometimes it doesn’t represent anything except itself. Posh
is just posh. And golf is just golf.

Yeah, boring. Print the legend.

A Rose by Any Other Name, Unless it’s Cactus

Names for things matter. Names for people matter. But what about names for types of people?

What, for example, do you call the people you serve, or those who serve you?

Depending on the type of language, our relationships and our attitudes to other people may be affected.

Supposing you deal with ‘clients,’ this can imply either a commercial relationship or a
casework relationship. For commercial clients, we need the clients more than they need us. By contrast, casework clients are dependent on us for help and guidance. Some clients are more equal than others.

Or do you deal with ‘customers’? Is the customer always right? If you work for the welfare
payments agency Centrelink you’re expected to refer to payees as ‘customers,’ even though they have no other agency to take their business to. Centrelink customers are not always right. Anyone who has stood on either side of their counter knows that.

This fashion for labelling recipients of service as ‘customers’ reached an apex of absurdity during the 90s, when the Victorian Government’s correctional services (there’s a lovely euphemism) department insisted that its prison staff refer to inmates as ‘customers’. What a ridiculous example of managerialism as fashion victim! Was that particular ‘customer’ (i.e. prisoner) always right? Was that customer in a position to take his or her business elsewhere? I don’t think so. Cell doors were hardly flying open because a customer satisfaction survey gave the thumbs-down to quality service.

If you’re admitted to hospital, you’re called a ‘patient’. Nothing new there. Recipients of health services have always been ‘patients’. But some allied health services are calling their care recipients ‘clients,’ in line with the ancillary agencies they refer people to, as part of post-operative care in case management. Makes sense, I suppose. And it’s still better than being a ‘customer’ of health services.

But in the employment industry, people looking for work are referred to as ‘candidates’.
Why? Are they standing for Parliament or local council? No, they’re candidates for
employment. More managerialist fashion talk. In this industry, the only customer is the prospective employer, who’s paying the fee, which leaves the ‘candidate’ without a title. What was wrong with ‘job-seeker’? Must we inflate everyone’s title, from ‘garbage collector’ to ‘sanitation engineer’?

We used to be ‘citizens’ but now we’re ‘consumers’. We used to be ‘owners’ and ‘home-owners’ but now we’re ‘rate-payers’. ‘Buyers’ have become ‘purchasers’. ‘Members’ have become ‘stakeholders’ (a catch-all term meaning anyone with some involvement, however peripheral). It’s all a bit bombastic, this linguistic inflation.  When teachers become ‘learning facilitators’ and storemen(persons) become ‘inventory controller,’ we know we’re entered an era of overblown titles and realigned relationships. ‘Sales manager’ used to be considered a position of status. That was no longer enough. ‘Account executive’ sounded more important. Managers used to manage. Now the list of tasks can include ‘deployment activities to support process institutionalisation and sustainment’ and ‘business methods enhancement’. This nonsense sounds like all the other job descriptions. Trainers no longer train. Instead they ‘identify process competency gaps,’ ‘meet corporative objectives’ and ‘target core deliverables’.

When we call everybody a customer, consumer or stakeholder, we devalue the precise nature of relationships. Names matter. And the names for our interactions matter too. A rose by another other name is not a flower: it’s a plant. Not good enough.