March 24, 2004

Fed up with "fed up"?

The Plain English Campaign has "surveyed its 5000 supporters in more than 70 countries" and determined that "'at the end of the day' [is] the most irritating phrase in the language," with 30-odd additional phrases listed as runners-up. Many publications and broadcasters have picked up the P.E.C. press release, including Reuters and the BBC World Service, where I heard it discussed this morning.

I need to begin my comments with a confession. It's hard for me to take anything that Robin Lustig says seriously, because whenever he opens his mouth, I think that I'm listening to a Monty Python skit. This is pure associative prejudice, I know, like the view that "technology doesn't sound nearly as impressive when it is discussed in a booming hick drawl", but I can't help it. So hearing Robin Lustig discuss this on the radio started me off with a feeling that the whole thing was some kind of high-entropy ironic foolishness.

Checking out the Plain English Campaign's press release confirmed and strengthened this feeling. They quote Orwell's dictum "Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print". But then, in the space of a few short sentences, they use the phrases "fed up", "pressure group", "barrier to communication", "tired expressions" and "tuning out", among other metaphors and figures of speech that I'm sure they are as used to seeing in print as I am. Google has seen these particular metaphors and figures of speech 835,000 times, 356,000 times, 20,340 times, 2,048 times, and 171,160 times, respectively. I don't have any objection to these phrases, myself, but it's definitely Pythonesque to strike a pose about avoiding commonplace metaphoric phrases in a document that uses two or three of them in every paragraph.

As a point of comparison, "blue sky thinking", which is one of the cliches we are told to shun, gets 3,660 Google hits. Can "blue sky thinking" possibly be a more offensive metaphorical expression than "fed up" or "tune out"? No, this has to be some deadpan English joke.

Alas, it isn't. The Plain English Campaign is the same outfit that gave its "foot in mouth "award to Donald Rumsfeld's plain-spoken exploration of epistemic logic. They're serious. They're just short on judgment, common sense and consistency.

Moving down the page from "fed up with cliches" to their previous press release, we find that its title alone deploys two commonplace metaphorical phrases: "From head to toe - medical consent company makes it crystal clear". These get 402,000 and 1,660,000 ghits respectively. The press release goes on to say:

Chrissie Maher, founder director of the Campaign, praised EIDO's achievement. 'Expecting patients to sign a consent form they can't understand is nothing short of a cruel joke. EIDO have shown that, no matter what the medical or surgical procedure is, you can produce clear information that truly allows patients to understand what they are agreeing to. By achieving plain English in every document, EIDO have become a guiding light for the entire healthcare industry.'

39,000 google hits for the "cruel joke" simile, 145,000 for the "guiding light" metaphor

3 And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst,
4 they say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act.
5 Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?
6 This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not.
7 So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.
8 And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground.

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 24, 2004 06:12 PM