Driven by data; ridden with liberty.
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.
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).
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.