It’s human nature to want to control the world by putting things in boxes. This is also true for our understanding of language, but things are rarely as simple and clearly defined as we’d like them to be. You only have to look at dialects – which are really languages within languages – to see how the complexity of language defies our attempts to put it in a box.
When we ask profound questions like ‘when does a dialect stop being a language-within-a-language and start becoming a language of its own?’ we really start to explore the close relationship between language and culture.
Whenever groups or societies start to develop and share particular attitudes and customs, it’s just about inevitable that they will develop a language of their own as well. Trades, professions and interest groups have words and phrases which don’t make a great deal of sense out of their context. In fact, when they are used out of context, problems can arise, with potentially humorous results, as with this example:
Jargon-clash resulting in zero communication
A: Hello, and welcome home oh wife of mine. How was your day?”
B: “Ah, don’t get me started. The overflow response sprockets wouldn’t uptake to full capacity at the first drainoff differentiation fillback marker. So then we had to -“
A: “How dispiriting. Allow me to produce for you a cup of high-temperature Oolong Sapshong herbally infused leaf beverage-“
B:- completely rewallock every third sheet separation fibulator until near maximum bleedback ratio-
A:- upon ingestion of which, any deleterious constitutional symptoms should cease to present.
And so on.
Most of us move in and out of ‘jargonised’ circles at different points in our lives, learning and using the words and phrases as necessary, and then forgetting them when we move on. These words, phrases or idioms can be useful in all sorts of situations for all sorts of reasons.
But there is also the ‘universal jargon’ of business buzzwords and clichés and it is so easy to become trapped in these. When we do, we start to diminish our powers of expression and communication. If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you’ll know my views on words like ‘passion’ and ‘awesome’, which lift us only one level or so above the caveman grunt. Look at this conversation between a copywriter and a client:
When clichés take hold and won’t let go
Copywriter: “Kerry, can you tell me in a bit more detail what your company does?”
Client: “We tailor optimised solutions to meet our clients’ needs.”
Copywriter: “OK. Can we spend some time talking about the solutions. What are they?
Client: “Well…they’re optimised…and…they’re-“
Client: “Yes, brilliant. You’ve got such a good understanding of our company. I feel you’re just the right agency to help with our marketing.”
Copywriter: “Great. Yes, I hope so too, but it would be good to know more about the solutions.”
And so on. I’m sure they got there in the end, but it’s all too easy to grab at words and phrases and then think you’re creating clear meaning when you’re not. Using ‘proper’ sounding words can seem like the right thing to do, otherwise you’ll sound too basic and lacking in knowledge and expertise. This is understandable, but we have to keep the primary purpose of copy in mind – to sell in the right way, to the right audience. This is a simple concept requiring a lot of hard work to implement.
But then of course, there are the people who use obscure language on purpose, to hide behind. They construct impregnable walls of verbosity to establish positions of superiority or protect positions of power. Here’s one I made up earlier:
I hope you don’t know what I mean
“Listen here, young whippersnapper, I’m going to explain this in simple language, so start taking notes. You see, a piece of stratified, igneous or metamorphosed mineral material, when propelled down an inclined path, fails to gather an accretion of tiny cryptogamous plants.”
“Oh. You mean ‘a rolling stone gathers no moss.”
“Errr, well, that’s a bit of an oversimplication, but, yeah – OK…”
So, those were a few thoughts about the use and misuse of words – something I do find fascinating. But now, it’s time to bid you farewell. I guess there’s no use me hanging around here preaching about how people sometimes construct walls of words to make the meaning obscure. After all, denizens of vitreous abodes constructed from the material formed by the fusion of silica should refrain from projecting missiles constructed from stratified, igneous or mineral materials.
Now figure that one out.