Sunday, November 6, 2011
"We are where we are" was a great phrase I heard for the first time a some 7 years ago – from a very understanding European Commission desk officer. I had expected some swearwords about the cock-up we were facing – instead of which I got this very wise response. You might think that the German “man ist was man isst” (to which I have referred before) is a variant – but, if you do, go back to square one! The German phrase suggests that our behaviour is determined by our diet. I disagree – they are determined to a huge extent by the words we use. "Words", as a left-wing political elder once severely but memorably told the cabinet of which I was a young member, "are important". I didn’t need the reminder – since George Orwell was then (and remains) one of my favourite writers.
All of this is by way of preface to a couple of very funny glossaries I came across yesterday. The first about civil service jargon on a site which contains some great articles tracing the development of the British civil service through its different stages and putting it all into historical context.
The second glossary is a good contribution to the sort of ridicule which we urgently need to start slinging at economists (and bankers). It’s from the website of one of the contrarian economists whose critique of economics has been at last proven so correct - Steve Keen. Curiously, his blog was down all Monday!!
This article from the very readable US Chronicle of Higher Education puts his work in a larger context.
At the start of the year I tried to pull together my various thoughts (and references) about the words which modern technocrats have used in the past 4-5 decades to protect their power and disarm any possible threat from the unwashed masses. It's in what I consider one of the best papers I have ever written - Just Words - a sceptic's glossary?
I realise as I write this that I have always targeted the technocrats (the courtiers) rather than the all-powerful commercial and other elites. Is this simple because I knew them better? Or is it because they supplied the ammunition to allow the real perverts to exploit us all?
As a party piece, this is a good expose of the phrases we Brits use; how our European partners generally understand them; and what the Brits really mean by them. For example - when we say "very interesting", foreigners think we are impressed. What we are actually thinking is that it's a lot of nonsense! Similarly, when we say "with the greatest respect", we are actually thinking "the man's an idiot" whereas the non-English speaker assumes that he is being listened to."Incidentally, by the way" actually means "this is the primary purpose of the discussion" - whereas the foreigner that the issue is of no significance. For those who deal with Brits, the table is useful prepartion and, who knows, sharing it with them might open up new friendships!
Poets are supposed to be the great explorers of verbal nuance – but I’m beginning to suspect it is actually comedians who deserve this accolade. I’ve referred recently to Tommy Cooper and Chic Murray. One of Germany's greatest - Loriot - died recently and occasioned this tribute. One of the most delightful films for me is - A Fish called Wanda – and I was pleased to find a couple of clips - first when Jamie Lee Curtis is overwhelmed by the Russian phrases of John Cleese (co-producer)
and then a clip which contrasts English styles of bedding with (those of!) the Italian.
To round off this treatment of words and phrases, who better to turn to than one of Britain's best writers - Chris Hitchens - who gives here a great treatment of the Ten Commandments