Churchill on Jargon: The Language as We Murder It

Churchill on Jargon: The Language as We Murder It

A friend sends a let­ter from a firm of “plan­ners” to his home­own­ers asso­ci­a­tion, rec­om­mend­ing its ser­vices and thoughts on assist­ing the association—so wool­ly a doc­u­ment that he won­dered what Churchill would make of it.

The let­ter con­tains phras­es such as: “The com­mit­tee should be tasked with the plan­ning and com­ple­tion of an inclu­sive and pro­duc­tive process….” And: “…gen­er­al under­stand­ing that will then offer guid­ance for the imple­men­ta­tion com­mit­tee…” And: “…an out­ward and hon­est mar­ket­ing posi­tion that will help it to achieve its goals…”

(“Tasked,” of course, is one of those nouns con­vert­ed to a verb by Mod­ern Newspeak. As in: “We are going to effort that.”)

When peo­ple write like this they are either try­ing to hide what they are real­ly think­ing, or have not thought at all. Or they are sub­con­scious­ly show­ing they have lit­tle respect for the recip­i­ent.

My friend thought so, and asked for rel­e­vant Churchill quotes about jar­gon. There are many.

This writer, for instance, “cer­tain­ly has the gift of com­press­ing the largest num­ber of words into the small­est amount of thought.” (Churchill on Prime Min­is­ter Ram­say Mac­Don­ald,  1933.)

He may also have “stum­bled over the truth and hasti­ly picked him­self on as if noth­ing had hap­pened” (Churchill on Prime Min­is­ter Stan­ley Bald­win, 1936.)

How Churchill would react to such writ­ing is eas­i­ly seen in the “Jar­gon” sec­tion of my quote book, Churchill in His Own Words, aka Churchill By Him­self, the chap­ter on “Writer and Speak­er.”

In 1948 (a mem­o­ran­dum to “My col­leagues and their staffs”):

Let us have an end of such phras­es as “It is also of impor­tance to bear in mind the fol­low­ing con­sid­er­a­tions…” or “Con­sid­er­a­tion should be giv­en to the pos­si­bil­i­ty of car­ry­ing into effect…” Most of these wool­ly phras­es are mere padding, which can be left out alto­geth­er or replaced by a sin­gle word. Let us not shrink from using the short expres­sive phrase, even if it is con­ver­sa­tion­al.

In 1950 (reply­ing to the Labour Party’s Hugh Gaitskell, who was edu­cat­ed at Win­ches­ter):

In this Debate we have had the usu­al jar­gon about “the infra­struc­ture of a supra-nation­al author­i­ty.” The orig­i­nal author­ship is obscure; but it may well be that these words “infra” and “supra” have been intro­duced into our cur­rent polit­i­cal par­lance by the band of intel­lec­tu­al high­brows who are  nat­u­ral­ly anx­ious to impress British labour with the fact that they learned Latin at Win­ches­ter. Although we may not rel­ish the words, no one will wish to deny the old-school-tie con­tin­gent their mod­est indul­gence in class self-con­scious­ness.

More briefly in 1951 (review­ing a wartime mem­o­ran­dum by Sovi­et For­eign Min­is­ter Vyach­eslav Molo­tov):

This gri­mace is a good exam­ple of how offi­cial jar­gon can be used to destroy any kind of human con­tact or even thought itself.

Denis Kel­ly, a lit­er­ary assis­tant help­ing Churchill abridge his World War II mem­oirs for a one-vol­ume edi­tion, wrote in a chap­ter sum­ma­ry: “Ger­many was out­matched, out­fought, sur­round­ed by supe­ri­or forces, iso­lat­ed and occu­pied.”

Mr. Kel­ly told me Churchill blue­lined this and sub­sti­tut­ed: “Ger­many was crushed.”

Moral: Always demand bona fides from any orga­ni­za­tion with “Plan­ning” in its title.

In fact, the Eng­lish in this let­ter is famil­iar to me. It is just the kind of boil­er­plate that usu­al­ly pre­cedes a consultant’s bill for $150,000.

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