December 15, 2005

No ideas, please, we're the Plain English Campaign

Well, the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock, and you hear the kyouck and gobble of the Plain English Campaign's annual award for gobbledegook. This time, we'll let Oliver Kamm comment:

The winner was the Welsh First Minister, Rhodri Morgan, for stating: “The only thing which isn’t up for grabs is no change and I think it’s fair to say it’s all to play for, except for no change.” It is Mr Morgan’s second award; the first was in 1998 for asking: “Do one-legged ducks swim in circles?”

Yet, while Mr Morgan’s winning entry is cliché-ridden, it is not gobbledegook. It is a statement, comprehensible on first reading, that many outcomes are possible, excepting only stasis. Likewise, Mr Morgan’s comment about ducks, in context, is a clear and arresting metaphor. Had Mr Morgan used the hackneyed equivalent phrase about ursine toilet habits, the Plain English Campaign would have taken no notice.

Every year undeserved attention is paid to a group that might more accurately be called the Obscurantism Organisation. Its gobbledegook award is not about English usage so much as a populist suspicion of ideas.

Kamm quotes Geoff Pullum's critique of the 2003 award to Donald Rumsfeld, and cites additional evidence that the P.E.C. awards committee can neither read nor think:

Gordon Brown, when Shadow Chancellor, won for a speech about “post-neoclassical endogenous growth theory”. This is not gobbledegook either. All disciplines have terms that are valuable shorthand for specialists. Endogenous growth theory is an important branch of economics, and if you know what “endogenous” means, you can make an informed guess about its subject matter.

And there's more, as Kamm explains in a note added later:

A prominent political journalist writes to say that the Gordon Brown remarks are an even worse case for the Obscurantists to cite than I had given credit for. He listened to the speech in 1994, and recalls that Brown remarked that "post-neoclassical endogeous growth theory" was not the stuff of soundbites, i.e. it was a self-mocking reference...

At this time of year, I guess that journalists are happy to scarf up press releases from groups like the P.E.C. And I shouldn't complain, because the P.E.C. has managed to play us for suckers, after our own fashion: look at all the Language Log posts these know-nothings have incited:

Baffling award of the year, again (12/7/2004)
The poetry of Donald Rumsfeld and other fresh American art songs (5/29/2004)
Stone the crows (5/25/2004)
Diamond geezer? (4/25/2004)
Irritating cliches? Get a life (4/25/2004)
Fed up with "fed up"? (4/24/2004)
Economist follows Language Log (12/7/2003)
No foot in mouth (12/2/2003)
Clear Thinking Campaign gives "fogged spectacles" award to John Lister (12/2/2003)

[Update: The post that I originally linked to on Oliver Kamm's web site is not available there at the moment. Most of it can be found here, in his 12/15/2005 Times column. That column of course omits Kamm's weblog post scriptum that included the link to Geoff Pullum's Language Log post, and the note about the context of Gordon Brown's remarks. Kamm's website was entirely unavailable for a while, and now is back with entries only through 12/9/2005 -- perhaps a disk failure and recovery from back-ups? ]

[Update 1217/2005: Kamm's site, or at least the relevant link, is back up./

Posted by Mark Liberman at December 15, 2005 04:12 PM