Trapped by language: The perils of English

A language full of cliches is the language of a society frightened of words. These phrases are not meaningless, since they evoke a world in which everything is known and securely in its place

The theoretical free play of ideas in our allegedly open and plural society is severely inhibited by the clichés and received phrases in which it takes place. Discussion is so densely packed with platitudes that it blocks rather than facilitates novel or disturbing ideas. Even the unthinkable, which is frequently said to be in the process of being thought, already pre-exists. The torpid script has been drawn up in advance, and once uttered – particularly if by accredited ‘thinkers’ or celebrities – it is greeted with gasps of astonishment at its daring and originality.

What is more, the majority of the clichés which form such a tight protective mesh around the fixed ideas which we pass to and fro do not even have their origin in British English. They are increasingly borrowed from the USA. American English is admittedly a more vigorous and living tongue than our own, but our readiness to capitulate to its expressive power is perhaps a symptom of a deeper loss of cultural confidence.

The imagery and metaphors on which public discussion depends, relate, in the main, to a few areas of popular experience; this is deeply patronising, since it suggests nothing can be understood unless filtered by predictable and reductive phrases which camouflage complexity and shield significance. It is aimed primarily at people who ‘play by the rules’, and understand the nature of the game. The thinness of language is sometimes amplified by lengthy abstract nouns (conceptualization, actualization) or scientific and military jargon (the ‘black hole’ in public finances, ‘collateral damage’), with a few euphemisms as danger signals against dangerous thought (‘enhanced interrogation’ perhaps, or the invention of ‘good capitalism’ and ‘bad capitalism’). All this should come as no surprise: we live in a society dominated by pictures and sounds. This makes it easier to elide ideas.

How reassuring it all is, even in these fearful austere times! Politicians regularly take the ball and run with it, but sometime take their eye off it; they kick it into the long grass, or kick the can down the road if they want to avoid dealing with any controversial issue.

Sport and marine images (own goals, front runners, to be on target, have the upper hand; a shot across the bows, plain sailing, an even keel, all hands on deck etc.) are among the most common sources. People easily recognise the wisdom of staying on the inside track, having a game-plan, going down to the wire; but they know when they are out of their league. The creation of a ‘level playing-field’ is perhaps the most abused of all sporting metaphors – a little surveyor’s skill, and everyone will be able to compete equally, the balance of international trade can be restored and the wrongs of centuries put right.

The economy is, of course, the area in which euphemistic clichés triumph. The ‘downturn’ of recent years has produced some fine examples of mystifying avoidance: who had heard of sub-prime loan before 2007? Such phenomena are recorded as though they were events of the natural world, an eclipse of the moon, in which agents and victims are scarcely identifiable. Economics is constantly naturalised in this way – we hear of ‘mortgage famines’ and ‘lending droughts’, and the supreme ecology of the world has nothing to do with the fragility of the planet but is the ‘economic environment’, or even the ‘economic climate’, where we bump along the bottom or scan the scorched economic earth for green shoots or signs of life. The ‘credit crunch’ managed to sound like a rather unappetizing form of breakfast cereal, while ‘indebtedness’ has a pleasantly palliative sound, something more tractable and less brutal than ‘debt.’ Medical clichés are close at hand to bring home the seriousness of the economic situation. We are told the economy has moved out of intensive care and into recovery; a shot in the arm here, a cash injection there, but nothing must interfere with the radical surgery that alone will deal with the deficit; the anthropomorphised entity of the economy now takes precedence over mere people, whose actual health service is being dismantled, and transformed into a health care industry – a quite different form of organisation – before our very eyes.

When all the low-hanging fruit have been plucked, the steep learning-curve has been negotiated; when inflation has reached rock-bottom and we can get no more bangs for our buck, we find ourselves between a rock and a hard place. Many of these US expressions replace images which have become incomprehensible to former English-speakers – this might, in another age, have been described as between Scylla and Charybdis or when middle-class British English ruled the roost (with its imagery of the barnyard and the chase) even as we are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.

We may be besieged by a cacophony of alarm bells, whistle-blowers and wake-up calls; but at least everyone is reading from the same hymn-sheet. We can recognise a no-brainer when we see it; think outside the box and don’t try to fix what ain’t broke; as long as our institutions are fit for purpose, we can push the envelope and move forward; if we take no notice of siren voices, the rising tide will no doubt lift all boats and we shall win the global race with our world-class industries. In the can-do psychology of our borrowed linguistic plumage, as long as we are kept in the loop, there is no problem, it will be a breeze, a walk in the park.

This is the language of a society frightened of words. These phrases are not meaningless, since they evoke a world in which everything is known and securely in its place. The words sum up on our behalf the wisdom of this late age, and represent a state of knowledge to supersede all that has gone before. It also reflects the change of sensibility of the post-industrial era; prompted from elsewhere, it is therefore apparently more vibrant. It is, of course, also suffocatingly conservative, calculated to catch new ideas on the wing and imprison them in clichés heavy as lead, which can be counted on to weigh us down with the sombre reassurance that nothing can ever really change.

(Jeremy Seabrook is an author and columnist who lives in London. He has been described as ‘one of England’s most imaginative and creative writers reminiscent of George Orwell’ by the Guardian newspaper)

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