In his essay, Politics and the English Language, George Orwell famously exhorted writers to be cautious of allowing ready words or prefabricated phrases to affect whatever it was he or she wished to articulate. ‘Let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about,’ he wrote.
Seventy years on, Whitehall Mandarins have spoken. ‘We promote the use of plain English on GOV.UK,’ writes one of their number from the Government Digital Service, announcing a new policy on which words cannot be used on government websites. ‘We advocate simple, clear language. Terms like eg, ie and etc, while common, make reading difficult for some.’
As a result, ostensibly to make their web outpourings more comprehensible to non-native speakers of English (good luck with that), these Latin abbreviations are now to be banned on government sites. ‘So we’re phasing them out,’ says the writer blithely.
You read that right: ‘So we’re phasing them out.’
Yip. Take a deep breath…
Does someone need to explain to these people that you cannot ‘phase out’ part of a language you don’t like, anymore than you can ‘phase out’ a people or a culture. What would the word for ‘phasing out’ whole castes of words you don’t like be? Lexocide? Verbacaust?
‘Even those with high literacy levels can be thrown if they are reading under stress or are in a hurry,’ says the writer, ‘like a lot of people are on the web.’ Make of that peerless piece of condescension what you will, but you pretty quickly sense that these are the sorts of people who would have us all wearing identical boiler suits and feeding from tubes in Matrix-style factories of joyless inhuman habitation.
As you would expect, the Plain English Campaign was cock-a-hoop. ‘We always suggest that writers remove Latin terms from all their text, particularly web text,’ it said in a jubilant statement. ‘Using such terms can suggest laziness and insincerity, and there’s never a justifiable reason to use them rather than clearer alternatives.’ Well, all I can say is, I’ll be swimming lazily on my back in the opposite direction till the day I pop it. Like farmers of the 1950s who drenched Britain’s soils with powerful chemicals to eradicate all non-desired species, this is an attack on our very precious, linguistic eco-system.
Once they’ve eradicated ‘etc’, ‘eg’ or ‘ie’, they’ll move on, as the boring mono-glots of the Plain English Campaign would wish, to eradicate the more daunting, brain-vertigo inspiring examples such as ‘ad hoc’, ‘vice versa’ and ‘non sequitur’. It’s only a matter of time and as we all know, tempus fugit.
Therefore we have to stand up against this. Because if they are happy to eliminate Latin words that have been happily residing on the tip of the national tongue for nearly two millennia, what about more recent foreign imports? Would we chuckle no more at double entendres? Would there be no more enfant terribles and femme fatales, and would our joie de vivre have been utterly eviscerated?
So let’s stop this insidious etymological witchhunt. Languages are neo-liberal dreamboats: they drift wherever their speakers take them, and right now we still use these words. They’re ours and you can’t ‘phase them out’.
As the man who had the unfortunate task of attempting to teach me some Latin recently, remarked: ‘Latin isn’t just a dead language – it’s also a language that’s taken a long time to die.’ Well, there’s life in the corpus yet. So listen to the people Gov.uk. Vox populi, vox dei.