‘We’ve developed a new technology for your business’. No, you haven’t. Have you invented cold fusion? Have you developed a new form of artificial intelligence? Have you created protein-sized micro-microprocessors? At best, you have come up with a new technique. Even that might be an exaggeration. A new angle, more like. New technology: what nonsense. The word ‘technology’ has a specific meaning. It’s the manufacture or modifying or usage of tools and machines, crafts and problem-solving systems. A technique is only a subset of one form of technology, not a fancy synonym for it.
This same tendency to exaggeration applies to the word ‘methodology’. It is not a fancy alternative for ‘method’. Methodology is the theoretical analysis of methods for a field of study or the body of methods and principles particular to that field. Once again, the subset term is not a substitute, synonym or alternate version. A method is a way or a systematic procedure to accomplish something. In other words, methodology is the study of methods, not a fancy way to write or say ‘method’.
This bloating of language is so common in management-speak these days it is no longer a phenomenon, just a kind of burden. It reminds me of those poor souls at the height of the Great Depression in the Weimer Republic who carried home piles of overinflated cash in wheelbarrows. Now this kind of language bombast pervades the education sector, the welfare sector, and even the health sector. We live and work in an era of the ‘garbologist’ and the ‘sanitation engineer’. We inflate job titles faster than the Zimbabwean economy. Our sales managers have become ‘account executives’. Teachers are ‘educators’ and ‘learning facilitators’. Manicurists are ‘nail technicians’. Dog owners become ‘canine companions’. Cleaners are ‘broom engineers’. Beauticians are ‘image enhancement therapists’. Tea ladies are ‘nourishment production executives’. Security guards are ‘traffic directors’.
What next? Are housewives to be relabelled ‘domestic management executives’? Are gardeners to become ‘horticultural technicians’? In an era when sandwich-makers at Subway fast food outlets are known as ‘sandwich artists’ anything is possible. I have met a website developer who describes himself as an ‘e-vangelist.’ I’ve heard of a counsellor called a ‘problem wrangler’. And I know a conference convenor who refers to himself on his business card as an ‘event visionary’.
It’s hard to know where this bombast will end. Are we on an inexorable path to language hyperinflation? I am reminded of the warning issued by W S Gilbert in The Gondoliers (1889): ‘When everyone is somebody, then no one’s anybody.’
How hard it must be for any newcomer to master English. Sure, you can memorise a few hundred nouns. That’s one reason why English is so appealing for first-timers, and it partly explains the easy development of many a pidgin or creole. As our language long ago dispensed with case endings, many verbs are easier than learn than those in other languages. As for plurals, just add ‘s’. One dollar. Two dollars. Coca-Cola. OK, boss.
But then the lingo turns complicated, with irregular verbs, confusing homonyms and the idiomatic use of prepositions. This last group can baffle even the advanced learner, creating unintended embarrassment, hilarity or disaster. To ‘pass by’ someone has nothing to do with ‘pass around’. If you ‘pass up’ an opportunity it’s unconnected with ‘pass down’. ‘Pass on’ shares no context with ‘pass off’. ‘Pass through’ and ‘pass around’ have no common bearing. ‘Pass out’ and ‘pass over’ are strangers to one another. Which way is up?
While the student of English strives to master such nuances, he or she encounters a bewildering range of idioms. Some are born crazy, some achieve craziness, and some have craziness thrust upon them over the life of a language. I recall first hearing the expression ‘Don’t teach your grandmother to suck eggs’ and wondering why anyone would do such a thing. My own grandmothers never mentioned it. Soon enough I learned that the expression means to give advice to someone on a subject they already know about, and probably know more than the advice giver. This phrase dates back at least to the eighteenth century, quoted in John Stevens’ translation of Quevedo’s Comical Works (1707): “You would have me teach my Grandame to suck Eggs.” The idea was to remove the yolk and albumen while preserving the shell. After making a pinhole at either end of the egg, you suck out the contents. This results in a shell you can paint for Easter without the contents turning rotten.
Language often clings to technology past the use-by date. Consider ‘repeating like a broken record’ (CDs and DVDs do not behave thus), ‘wind that tape back to the start’ (who uses tape nowadays?) and even ‘clockwise’ (unintelligible to those only familiar with digital clocks).
Why do we still refer to a ‘feather in one’s cap’ when people ceased dressing that way during the Renaissance? Why do we talk about the ‘Sixty-Four Thousand Dollar question’ when that American TV game show ceased broadcasting in 1958? Why do we still hear the expression of enthusiasm ‘now we’re cooking with gas’ from a 1940s advertising campaign in the USA, when gas companies were busy promoting the transition from wood-burning stoves?
In England some people still use the expression ‘I don’t give a tinker’s cuss,’ though the profession of tinker—an itinerant tinsmith—is all but extinct, and the use of a tinker’s swearword vocabulary could well be tame by modern standards. Elsewhere in the Anglosphere we find ‘the acid test,’ referring to a gold-mining practice of the 1850s in which strong acid was used to differentiate gold from base metals.
How is the learner of English to understand ‘as dead as a doornail,’ ‘happy as Larry’ or ‘beating around the bush’? The first phrase is obscure (one plausible meaning is that door nails were hand-forged extra-long so they could ‘dead nail’ the vertical and horizontal panels securely. A nail bent in this fashion was said to be ‘dead’). The second phrase is obtuse (that eponymous Larry could have been champion boxer Larry Foley who never lost a fight and won a lot of prize money—making him very happy—or the word could be a corruption of ‘larrikin’). And the third phrase is occupational (‘beaters’ are labourers who ‘beat’ the undergrowth for hunters, stirring wildfowl into flight; though this is hardly time-wasting, rather it’s a necessary activity).
Who is leading the life of Riley? Why is Bob your uncle? Who is Jerry to build things? Who’s this Monty and why is he full?
Mr Riley (or Reilly or O’Reilly) leads an affluent and contented existence, possibly at the expense of others. This expression was popular in the 1880s, when James Whitcomb Riley’s poems depicted a prosperous home life. On the other hand, clan Riley (or Reilly) in Ireland had a reputation for successfully printing money and passing it off as legal tender. Either tale is a plausible origin.
‘Bob’s your uncle’ indicates that everything is all right, and achieved by simple means. There are three claimants to this one. British PM Lord Salisbury (Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquis of Salisbury) had a reputation for nepotism. He appointed his nephew, Arthur Balfour, to various plum jobs until the lad succeeded uncle Bob (Robert) as prime minister. A less colourful origin theory comes from retail, where the phrase ‘all is bob’ (meaning all’s well) has been in use for three hundred years. The third origin theory comes from music hall and a revue called Bob’s Your Uncle in the 1920s. This last one may be the most plausible.
‘Jerry-built’ means constructed in a slapdash manner. Its likeliest forebear is a firm of Liverpool builders called the Jerry brothers, who had a reputation for shoddy workmanship. It’s as good a theory as any, in the absence of other evidence. It has no relationship to the Allies’ collective nickname for Germany, whose engineers built to last. The jerry-can is still an unrivalled example of effective and durable design.
The 1997 film The Full Monty told a story of unemployed labourers in the North of England staging a male-striptease fundraiser. People still use the phrase to indicate ‘going the whole way’ or ‘complete and utter’. One likely origin is the tailoring business of Sir Montague Burton, who could make a superior three-piece suit. Customers often requested an order of ‘the full Monty’. Another possible origin comes from Field Marshall Montgomery’s habit of wearing a full set of medals, or possibly the legend that he insisted his troops eat a full English breakfast every day: a full Monty. That army wouldn’t so much march as roll on its stomach.
‘Humble pie’ began as a genuine dish. ‘Umble pie’ contained the umbles: inner organs of beasts and fowl, such as liver, heart and kidneys. ‘Fit as a fiddle’ dates from the late Middle Ages, when ‘fit’ referred not to physical wellbeing but fit for the purpose. ‘Mayday’ bears no relation to maypoles. Instead it’s a corruption of French cry ‘Aidez-moi! ’meaning ‘help me’. Repeated misuse by British sailors corrupted this to ‘M’aidez’.
Lastly, ‘going postal’ has only a tangential relationship to mail delivery. U.S. postal centres are confined environments of concentrated attention and crushing boredom. Following a series of tragic shootings when lone postal workers went berserk with a gun, the expression to ‘go postal’ appeared, meaning to lose your temper—and to lose it with extreme prejudice.
How does any learner of English acquire a working knowledge of such arcana? Poor creatures. Some have craziness thrust upon them.
‘Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice:
What I tell you three times is true.’ Lewis Carroll, The Hunting of the Snark
The tricolon is a rhetorical term for a series of three parallel words, phrases or clauses. It usually occurs in a sentence with three defined parts of equal length, often with independent clauses, and of increasing power, sometimes with a humorous twist in the third part. The tricolon may be witty and brilliant as well as original. Or it may be trite even before it has the chance to devolve into cliché. Here are a few examples:
“You are talking to a man who has laughed in the face of death, sneered at doom, and chuckled at catastrophe.” (The Wizard in The Wizard of Oz, 1939)
“I think we’ve all arrived at a very special place. Spiritually. Ecumenically. Grammatically.” (Captain Jack Sparrow, Pirates of the Caribbean, 2003)
“Veni. Vidi, Vici. ” I came. I saw. I conquered. (Julius Caesar, letter to the Senate, 46 BC)
“I want you, I need you, but there ain’t no way I’m ever going to love you.” (Meatloaf, ‘Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad’ Bat Out of Hell, 1977)
“He is mad, bad and dangerous to know.” (Lady Caroline Lamb, journal, March 1812 – referring to Lord Byron)
“Be sincere. Be Brief. Be seated.” (Franklin D. Roosevelt, advice to his son James on giving a speech, quoted in Basic Public Speaking, 1963)
Overuse of the tricolon can speed up the process of downgrading it to a mere triple cliché. Mouthy politicians like Governor Chris Christie (New Jersey), Senator Barnaby Joyce (Queensland) and Troy Buswell MP (Western Australia) love to deploy the tri-trite. It gives them an extra moment to work out what they’ll say next during an interview.
“I did not have that conversation with Governor Cuomo in any way, shape or form.” Governor Chris Christie, Wall Street Journal, 2013
“No one has approached me in any way, shape or form about the issues pertaining to Cory Bernardi.” Barnaby Joyce, The Australian, 2012
“To put it bluntly, that’s a three year deferral of the project, it’s not a cancellation of the project in any way, shape or form.” Troy Buswell, ABC News, 2013
These tired old triples are legion. Lock, stock and barrel. One stop shop. Blood, sweat and tears. Lights, camera, action…
Even a tricolon that starts out with flair and originality can, in time, degrade into just another tri-cliché. The good, the bad and the ugly. Sex and drugs and rock-‘n’-roll. Truly, madly, deeply. This is the infamous rule of three, whereby repetition provides reinforcement of an idea, notion, concept until the listener, audience, viewer gets it. What I tell you three times is true.
Occasionally a phrase of startling originality may be parodied without malice. In writing the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson crafted an immortal tricolon: ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’. How strange that almost two-hundred years later its spirit should infuse the prologue of TV series Superman (1952-58) as ‘truth, justice and the American way’. Another legendary phrase from the same series is also tricolonic: “It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s Superman.”
Next time you hear a joke about an Englishman, a Scotsman and an Irishman, you’re helping to tricolonise. When you describe someone as tall, dark and handsome, you’re doing it again. So does our old rule of three reinforce the better part of irony (vide Lewis Carroll)? Or does it merely help a blustering Barnaby with his word quota, in any way shape or form?