Jargon patrol: What does 're-moding' actually mean?
- 17 May 2012
- From the section Magazine
A government video has asked people to "re-mode" during the London Olympics. But is this a real word and what does it mean?
The minister could have asked people to walk or to cycle, instead of using the Tube.
Instead Transport Secretary Justine Greening asked people to re-mode in a promotional video . Specifically to "re-route, re-mode, re-time".
Is this a real word or an example of government gobbledygook?
According to the Department for Transport, re-mode means "to change the mode of transport that you use".
It is, they say, a word that is well known within the transport industry and can be found in many Department for Transport papers.
But it does not crop up in dictionaries with this meaning, and internet searches throw up a Depeche Mode tribute band.
The wags have already compared it to The Thick Of It, the political satire which coined terms such as the "infiltration matrix" and "plasmic data modelling".
In the Oxford English Dictionary, "mode" as a verb dates back to the 17th Century, and means "to be or become the fashion".
But re-mode has not yet been given an entry.
"We do have 'mode' as a verb. It's interesting to note that Greening seems to be using the noun 'mode' (as in 'method') and making that into a verb ," says Fiona McPherson, senior editor at the OED.
"It is definitely brand new. It is an interesting use of a new word and one that we would certainly be keeping an eye on," she adds.
Governments of all political hues do have a tendency to either coin new words, or to adopt coinages from elsewhere. Very often they are technical terms used for ease of internal communication to avoid lengthy circumlocutions.
But it is when they escape into the public domain that accusations of gobbledegook start to fly.
"Sometimes people do it to make what they are saying seem more interesting than it is, to give something false importance," says columnist Matthew Parris.
"I think re-moding might actually mean walking."
In the government campaign Londoners are asked to change their daily commute to avoid the busiest routes and times during the Olympic Games. Essentially to walk, cycle or work from home.
Greening illustrates her point by "having a good old walk up to cabinet", saying to camera: "I'm re-moding at the moment."
Fast forward and Norman Baker MP appears, repeating the phrase " gains to be got".
"Those approaches have many gains to be got for the government, many gains to be got for the environment and many gains to be got for the economy," he says.
There are many other examples of government jargon.
Pepper-potting was once used to describe combining affordable housing with privately owned homes - the idea was that poorer people were sprinkled throughout a community.
Referral pathway has also been well used as a way to explain people's route through the health service.
Incentivising, worklessness and beaconicity are other jargon-ish words that plain English campaigners have disliked.
When these words do make it into communications with the public, they can eventually make it into common usage.
Parris says: "Some of these strange made up words actually become the norm. We use deplaning now, for getting off a plane. Very strange.
"There is something about transport that seems to encourage particularly silly words. Train announcers don't say stations anymore, they are now calling points.
"And trains always terminate. If they stopped that would be fine."
The current eurozone crisis has highlighted other examples of political gobbledygook.
"They talk of neutralising debt. It's a wonderful expression," adds Parris.
The Labour government also regularly fell foul of the jargon police. Tony Blair had his third way politics, indicating a path between tradition left-wing and right-wing politics. Gordon Brown's use of progressive consensus, meaning agreement on the way to move forward, also raised eyebrows.
One person's jargon is another's useful umbrella term of course. The meaning of the term social justice isn't clear to many, but its defenders would say it offers a more nuanced meaning than "helping the poor and disadvantaged".
And the issue is an international one.
US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld baffled some with his now legendary reference to "known unknowns".
"There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns," he said.
His is probably one of the few examples where government language has prompted a book of existential poetry.
Greening's alliterative "re-route, re-mode, re-time", has yet to gain such reverence.
Marie Clair, from the Plain English Campaign, says that using confusing and made-up words or industry jargon might be useful for those in the know but can undermine meaning for the wider audience.
"If you are directly asking the public to do something, it's not a good idea to use industry words that no-one else has heard of."