Finest Hour 145, Winter 2009-10
Editor’s Essay – Churchill on Jargon
It was recently suggested that Finest Hour stress “content symbiosis, innovative, provocative and objective thinking, assessment of operational responsibilities, specific parameters targeted at a demographically mixed audience with varying tastes, discernment and intellectual approaches, ensuring that each medium reaches targeted audiences, making it more cross-generationally enticing, using more immediate and responsible electronic media.” Such an astonishing number of words, all on one page, is liable to confuse somebody whose livelihood depends on communication.
What this perfectly well-intended message boils down to is: make Finest Hour more appealing to younger readers and develop an electronic edition.1 But I did wonder in passing how Churchill, that peerless practitioner of the Queen’s English, would react to the kind of language it contained.
“Short words are best,” he said, “and the old words, when short, are best of all.”2 We can imagine what he would think about substituting Politically Correct fad-words, like “challenges” for “handicaps” or “issues” for “difficulties.” What would he make of the cliché “reaching out”? Would he wonder if it means conversing, telephoning, writing, telegramming, faxing, emailing or Twittering? Instead of “reaching out,” what’s wrong with “communicating”?
Churchill would snort at catch-all code-words like “the rich” (for anyone earning a comfortable living), or tergiversations like “man-caused disaster” instead of “terrorism.” But even in his day he had his hands full:
“I hope you have all mastered the official Socialist jargon which our masters, as they call themselves, wish us to learn,” he said in 1950. “You must not use the word ‘poor’; they are described as the ‘lower income group.’ When it comes to a question of freezing a workman’s wages the Chancellor of the Exchequer speaks of ‘arresting increases in personal income’….[Homes] are in future to be called ‘accommodation units.’ I don’t know how we are to sing our old song ‘Home Sweet Home.’ ‘Accommodation Unit, Sweet Accommodation Unit, there’s no place like our Accommodation Unit.'”3
Churchill learned English from a Harrow master, Robert Somervell, who instilled in him a love of clarity and a hatred of obfuscation. To his wartime colleagues in 1940 he said: “Let us have an end of such phrases as these: ‘It is also of importance to bear in mind the following considerations…’ or ‘Consideration should be given to the possibility of carrying into effect….’ Most of these woolly phrases are mere padding, which can be left out altogether or replaced by a single word. Let us not shrink from using the short expressive phrases, even if it is conversational.”4
Years later he was still banging away: “In this Debate we have had the usual jargon about ‘the infrastructure of a supra-national authority.'”5 Alas, woolly phrases have a long shelf-life, and “infra” and “supra” are with us yet.
Protesting the Ministry of Defence’s “barren, dismal, flatulent, platitudinous” 1947 White Paper, Churchill said: “It was one of those rigmaroles and grimaces produced by the modern bureaucracy into whose hands we have fallen—a kind of vague palimpsest of jargon and officialese with no breadth, no theme, and, above all, no facts.”6
In 1942, Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov wrote a turgid memo about the Royal Navy, saying, that Russia “will be in a position to draw the necessary conclusions as to the real state of affairs, particularly in regard to certain irregularities in the actions of the respective British naval authorities.” Churchill tore that one up with one of his favorite pejoratives: “This grimace is a good example of how official jargon can be used to destroy any kind of human contact, or even thought itself.”7
In Cardiff in 1950, Churchill added: “I hope to live to see the British democracy spit all this rubbish from their lips.”8 Aye, and the other democracies with it. Any year now, God willing.
1. We already have electronic editions: see www.winstonchurchill.org. To ease searches, Webmaster John Olsen and I are laboring to add more .html (hypertext markup language) files of major articles and departments to the present .pdfs (portable document formats).
2. The Times Literary Award luncheon, London, 2 November 1949. Robert Rhodes James, ed., Winston S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches, 8 vols. (New York: Bowker, 1974), VII: 7885.
3. Cardiff, Wales, 8 February 1950. Winston S. Churchill, In the Balance: Speeches 1949 & 1950 (London: Cassell, 1951), 181.
4. Sir Martin Gilbert, ed., The Churchill War Papers, vol. II, May 1940-December 1940 (New York: Norton, 1994), 636.
5. House of Commons, 27 June 1950. In the Balance, 291.
6. House of Commons, 31 March 1947. Winston S. Churchill, Europe Unite: Speeches 1947 & 1948 (London: Cassell, 1950), 53.
7. Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War, vol. IV, The Hinge of Fate (London: Cassell, 1951), 516.
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