Word snobs – more irritating than jargon, Americanisms and teen-speak

Every so often, someone writes an article on words they don’t like. Sometimes they have a go at teenagers’ language, other times it’s business jargon. Those of us who follow John Rentoul on Twitter are reminded of his banned list almost every day.

Earlier this month, Matthew Engel decided to have a moan about Americanisms. The BBC asked readers to send in their most hated examples, which they published on Wednesday. This prompted a range of responses from the other side of the Atlantic, ranging from mild irritation to outright piss-taking.

I’m with the Yanks on this one. It’s much ado about nothing.

Many of the words people object to are not, strictly speaking, Americanisms. Some are words that existed before the creation of the USA but which fell out of use in Britain or became more widely used in America. These two posts from linguistics professor Mark Liberman explain just how silly the whole thing is. This Economist piece puts the BBC’s ranting readers in their place.

Many of these are truly Americanisms, and many are (to my eye) annoying, too. But so many share one or more of these features:

1) selective hyper-literalism: refusal to understand idioms as such

2) amnesia, or else the ” recency illusion“: A belief that something quite old is new

3) simple anti-Americanism: the belief that if something is ugly, it must have come from the states.

As the Washington Post points out, the traffic is two-way. Apparently, Americans have even started sacking people instead of firing them.

But what’s wrong with new language anyway?

Sometimes, Americans have ways of saying things which are quite useful. Gotten, for example, is an old English past participle that we’ve stopped using but which, in some contexts, works better than got.

The one I really like is where you ‘get to’ do something – implying that you have permission or that you’ve done something deserving a reward. So the National Audit Office might have said; “If HMRC collects an extra £7bn, it gets to invest £917m back into the business.” (See yesterday’s post.) We don’t really have a British English equivalent of getting to do something.

24/7 is a convenient shorthand too. Yes, you could say “24 hours, 7 days a week” or even just plain “all day, every day”, as one of the replies to the BBC’s website complained, but both take longer to say and are a bit of a mouthful.

The same is true of jargon. As I’ve said before, some so-called jargon words are useful additions to the language. Stakeholder appears on a few banned lists but I’ve yet to hear another catch-all term which covers the shareholders, customers, suppliers, colleagues, government agencies, pressure groups, journalists, joint-venture partners, charities and community activists who could mess things up for your organisation if you don’t keep them on-side. It’s a handy word and I’m not going to stop using it just because the self-appointed language police don’t like it.

Word-snobbery, in its various forms, seems to be almost as old as the English language. In 1710, Jonathan Swift wanted to stop people from saying sham, banter, mob and bully, all of which are now common words. Note that his rant appeared 66 years before the USA was founded, so he couldn’t blame any of these “manifest evils” on the Americans.

Language changes and new words and phrases are being added all the time. Shakespeare often made words up and is reckoned to have added hundreds of them to the English language. As ever, those words that people find useful will stay, others will just be passing fads. English survived as an unwritten language for 300 years under Norman rule. A few extra additions from teen-speak, business jargon or the languages of the former colonies are not going to ruin it.

I find the po-faced language snobbery, as displayed on the BBC website, more irritating than a few ugly words and phrases. Furthermore, it makes us look pompous and stuffy to people elsewhere in the world who happily modify our language for their own needs. Like many of the Americans who commented on this story, I can’t see what all the fuss is about.

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3 Responses to Word snobs – more irritating than jargon, Americanisms and teen-speak

  1. Yeahbutnobutyeahbutno

    The framing of this issue as a transatlantic, nationalist spat is definitely stupid and gets the whole question off on the wrong foot, sure.

    But your specific example, ‘stakeholder’ is a very good example of what is lost by casual use of terminology. The problem with this word is that it smooths out gross power differentials between the very different interest groups you list (‘shareholders, customers, suppliers, colleagues, government agencies, pressure groups, journalists, joint-venture partners, charities and community activists’). So its use hides the fact that, actually, some of of these parties directly make decisions in particualr organisations; some set the overarching ‘terms of trade’ within which organisational decisions are made; and others only have a (usually temporary) potential, of very fluctuating intensity, to influence some decisions some times. So as a word it hides more than it reveals, and ,indeed, perhaps this is why it is so beloved of the PR and marketing communities…

  2. Pingback: Word snobs – more irritating than jargon, Americanisms and teen-speak - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  3. Pingback: Something to think about… Language « brainguff

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