“One for the Word Nerds”

In one of our first sessions for the morning, Jeff Malpus chaired a discussion with Don Watson, Julian Burnside and Jane Caro about the state of our language today and why words are still important to us.

After sharing some anecdotes about what words mean to our panellists, the topic soon moved to some lamenting about the way in which ‘managerial speak’ is seeping into the skin of our everyday language. Such ‘outcomes-based’ language that ‘value-adds’ and has ‘impact’ is in fact, in the view of Julian Burnside, designed to bamboozle. Panellists pointed out that organisations now describe themselves as ‘agile’ and ‘nimble’. Is that possible? And what does that even mean?

Jane Caro commented that management and government speak can almost be a cover-up for what an organisation or initiative is actually intending to achieve, such as the ‘Education Revolution’ involving the closing of schools. There is also an obsession with using language to constantly be positive, such as ‘No Child Left Behind’ or ‘Closing the Gap’. Organisations are unable to be truthful or negative, and are forced to conform to a ‘phoney, cult-like positivity’. Don Watson illustrated this with a reference to the term ‘energetic disassembly’ – which in plain-speaking words is in fact a nuclear explosion!

The panel reflected on the ambiguous relationship between language and truth. Language is an intermediary between the mind and the outside world. Language shouldn’t carry the burden of being a barrier to truth, but we can use it to lie, bullshit, exaggerate, downplay and manipulate, and there are facial expressions, body language and tone that can mismatch our words. Jane Caro added that language seems to being designed in such a way these days to prevent any kind of interpretation, challenge or reading between the lines.

So, can we change this ‘management-speak’ infiltration? The panel agreed that one of the most important things we all can do is to ask when faced with such language: “What do you mean? And why?” and to ‘active-listen’ of sorts back to a speaker with “So what you’re saying is…” This can stop management-speak offenders in their tracks, and force them to consider if they really do understand what they are saying!

Jeff commented that if we want a rich world, we need a rich language. Jane offered the advice that when you are speaking or writing, think of writing to one person. Mass communication freezes up the way we speak, because we don’t know how to speak to 10 000 or half a million viewers or followers.

The session closed with some questions from the audience to ponder, such as would the inclusion of more Anglo-Saxon-origin words encourage more clear and plain speech in our society? What is the effect of the internet and digital communication on our language? Is there no going back?

Language will continue to evolve, change, reduce, expand, evolve, adapt. But we can all influence our language by saying what we mean.