‘Jargongate’: pedants' revolt on a wet February afternoon
is an editor of the BBC Academy blog
One effect could be the phasing out of non-Azeri sounding names, as the BBC Azeri Service’s Leyla Najafova reported in the latest episode of the excellent Fifth Floor programme (catch her piece about 23 minutes 50 seconds into the broadcast). So Olga and Dimitri are out; Hasan and, happily, Leyla are still in favour in the former Soviet republic.
Najafova says she is rarely surprised by proclamations coming out of Azerbaijan but that this time the authorities may just have “outdone themselves”.
It’s easy to be sniffy, though. From time to time our own officialdom sets about policing language - as when self-styled ‘grammar fascist’ and international development minister Alan Duncan set about banning the use of baffling jargon in the Department for International Development.
On his hit list were the likes of ‘leverage’, ‘grow the economy’ and various nouns used as verbs - as in ‘mainstream’, ‘impact’ and ‘showcase’. Writing about his department’s work ‘in the humanitarian space’ was practically a sackable offence and, well, don’t’ get him started on ‘going forward…’
Likewise, the Local Government Association proscribed a couple of hundred “impenetrable” words and phrases, including ‘across the piece’, ‘direction of travel’, ‘face time’, ‘low-hanging fruit’, ‘pump priming’, ‘seedbed’, ‘step change’, ‘trajectory’, ‘worklessness’ and ‘big asks’.
You can feel the pain in the LGA’s introduction to the banned list: “Why do we have to have a ‘webinar trialogue for the wellderly’ when the public sector could just ‘talk about caring for the elderly’ instead?”
Of course news organisations including the BBC have ‘style guides’ (available to BBC staff only) which outlaw various bits of jargon and journalese, even if they’re not always policed as zealously as some readers and audiences would like.
Late last year Trinity Mirror’s doughty digital publishing director David Higgerson took it upon himself to mount a survey of his Twitter followers to find out which words they would ban from headlines. ‘Rapped’, ‘probe’, ‘mystery surrounds’, ‘council chiefs’, ‘miracle’, ‘tsar’ and ‘revellers’ all had a decent showing.
Anyhow, the clampdown in Baku was a good enough excuse, on a damp February afternoon, for a quick straw poll of BBC colleagues, random friends and acquaintances in the business to find out what they would ban journalists from saying/writing ever again, given the chance.
Predictably, respondents were uncomfortable with the word ‘ban’, but were nevertheless enthusiastic about sin-binning what makes them gnaw on their typewriter ribbons (or whatever the digital equivalent is).
In no particular ranking, but all with more than one entry, were: ‘at this moment in time’, ‘revamp’, ‘it’s too soon to say’, ‘any time soon’, ‘iconic’, ‘meeting with’, ‘a cocktail of drink and drugs’, 'it's my understanding’, ‘the BBC has learned’, ‘appeal the sentence’, ‘refute’ (when you mean deny) and ‘breaking news’ (when it’s not strictly).
Among the most heartfelt pleas were for an end to: ‘in a speech later today the prime minister is expected to say…’; ‘dawn revealed the full extent of the tragedy’; ‘local resident’ (why else would you interview a resident if they’re not local?); ‘just’, as in ‘just seven years old’ and ‘just seconds from disaster’; 'every family's worst nightmare’; and ‘reached out to…’ (someone, usually the enemy - it makes the reacher sound generous).
‘Salami-slicing’, ‘policy wonk’, ‘uneasy peace’, ‘ground-breaking’, ‘quizzed’ and ‘Team GB has medalled again’ all got a mention.
Not surprisingly, in my completely unscientific poll, the universally loathed ‘going forward’ got most people’s vote, although, to be fair, it’s more likely to be a quote from a politician or corporate spokesmen than some hack’s own prose.
A little surprisingly perhaps, the outright winner was the suffix ‘gate’, as in ‘Camillagate’, ‘Squidgygate’, ‘Irangate’, ‘Sharongate’, ‘Plebgate’, the highly unlikely ‘Faijitagate’ and the recurring ‘Nipplegate’ - originated by Janet Jackson but regularly revived, as just last week.
One or two other suffixes caused offence, including ‘-ista’, ‘-oholic’ and ‘-nik’. But none rattled sensibilities like the hated ‘-gate’.Nothing like a small pedants' revolt to get the juices flowing. Let’s just be massively grateful that we’re not, or ever likely to be, subject to a North Korean-style crackdown, in which it’s reported that journalists have been sent to ‘revolutionisation’ camps, ‘simply for a typo in their articles’. That kind of puts the ban from Baku in perspective.