In Defence of Liberty

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Review: The Banned List

Let me be clear: it’s the language, stupid. Cliché is a hot-button issue. We’ve all heard political speeches about how a One Nation party would be competitive in the global race and deliver fairness in tough times. Activists also sing from the hymn sheet of political clichés, especially when they argue that the ConDem government is putting the NHS in intensive care and how we need Plan B. We must address our communication issues with a basket of blue-sky solutions that is evidence-based, crowd-sourced and answers all stakeholders. Step forward, John Rentoul. We need The Banned List: A Manifesto against Jargon and Cliché now more than ever.

I oppose cliché with every fibre of my being. (Photo: The Independent)

I oppose cliché with every fibre of my being. (Photo: The Independent)

If reading that paragraph caused you to grind your teeth so loudly that it disturbed nearby birds, you should probably read The Banned List. Beginning from hearing the ‘It’s the economy, stupid’ on TV, the Independent columnist wrote his first list of prohibited clichés, which included ‘A week is a long time in politics’ (pg. 7). An early version of a prohibited list, of words and phrases that should be avoided, was written by George Orwell in his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language (pg. 17). Orwell’s list dying metaphors was:

Ring the changes on, take up the cudgel for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, no axe to grind, grist to the mill, fishing in troubled waters, on the order of the day, Achilles’ heel, swan song.

Orwell also wanted writers to avoid ‘verbal false limbs’, such as “militate against, make contact with, be subjected to, give rise to”, ‘pretentious diction’, with words such as “phenomenon, element, individual” and ‘meaningless words’. Similar lists had appeared prior to Rentoul’s one. Matthew Parris and Paul Flynn MP had written a list of ‘Political Deadspeak’ for a BBC Radio 4 programme (pg. 26), and Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, wrote a list of journalese words that he banned his writers from using (pg. 27).

Jargon and Cliché

Mr Rentoul argues that writers use jargon and cliché due to three reasons: “not being sure about what one is saying; wanting to be part of the crowd; and a lack of time” (pg. 33). Ambiguous terms can be politically useful, such as ‘affordable housing’, which disguises the subsidies made to create such housing. Contemporary politicians often use cliché, with Mr Rentoul stating “Nick Clegg is a terrible offender except when Richard Reeves is drafting his material” and it is “surprising how cliché-ridden some of David Cameron’s speeches are” (pg. 44). It is also fun to play the Myles na Gopaleen Catechism of Cliché, such as (pg. 50):

What are guarantees made from? Cast Iron. With what are they bottomed? Copper. And what are they not worth? The paper they are written on.

It’s a short book at a 107 pages, with 40 pages spent on the list itself, but enjoyable to read. Writers should take care with their work, and not recede behind a wall of cliché.

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5 comments on “Review: The Banned List

  1. Stephen Bush
    July 14, 2013

    Sounds an interesting read; I’m going to check it out! What grabbed my attention was this – expanding on the idea that ‘ambiguous terms can be politically useful’, I’d point you, if you’re interested in this theme, in the direction of ‘Unspeak’ by Steven Poole.

    • Anthony Masters
      July 14, 2013

      I do recommend it. I will buy that book when I purchase my next batch.

  2. peem birrell
    July 14, 2013

    At least Orwell didn’t have to worry about ‘mitigate against’, ‘enormity’ to mean great size – I heard a BBC News b/cast talk about the enormity of Andy Murray’s win – and the one I really despise – prevaricate abused to mean procrastinate or equivocate. Nah, I’m just an old pedant prevaricating… It’s all good now in a world of arseholes.

    • Anthony Masters
      July 14, 2013

      The Banned List did cover the first phrase (pg. 19): “(‘Militate against’ is a particular menace because some people confuse ‘militate’ with ‘mitigate’, which turns it into a nonsense phrase).”
      The Free Dictionary does recognise that use of ‘enormity’ as a problem. ‘Plethora’ is one of my disliked phrases when used by others, since it is rarely used correctly: superabundance, rather than just “a lot”.

  3. Pingback: Review: Logically Fallacious | In Defence of Liberty

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