One man’s war on clichés (does what it says on the tin)
When John Rentoul published a list of key phrases he wanted banned, he had no idea in any way, shape or form what would happen going forward…
It was “any time soon” that pushed me over the edge. No. No time soon. Or ever. Just get rid of it. It is not a different way of saying “soon”, just a longer one. That was when I posted on The Independent’s blog, saying that the phrase “has been added to the list of Prohibited Clichés. By order”.
It was a passing remark, about a BBC television report about when British troops might return from Afghanistan, but it prompted enough comments for me to return to the subject and outlaw other verbiage. There was no list of Prohibited Clichés when I started, but within days the Banned List had become an established theme on the blog. Each time I returned to it, readers added their own suggestions of jargon, vogue words and over-used phrases that annoyed them. It turns out that pedantry is popular.
Three years later, there is a list of the top 100 banned words and phrases on The Independent’s website, atindependent.co.uk/bannedlist, and the feature is popular on Twitter. The hashtag is #bannedlist, although “hashtag” itself is in danger of being put on the list, because it is a horrible new construction used only by insiders. You might think that Twitter is full of text-speak and mis-spelt slang, but it is also a playground for show-offs and sticklers. Kerry McCarthy, one of the most prolific MP-tweeters, and I were even involved in a discussion last week about the difference between a counterfactual conditional and a subjunctive conditional.
Normally, though, politicians are the worst offenders. It is not clear how much they themselves are to blame, or how much they are simply overwhelmed by the substandard drafting of civil servants and speech writers. Perhaps they lack the time to put a pen through it and rewrite it themselves. It is a national scandal that the Civil Service provides such ghastly drafting of official documents, full of turgid abstractions that are intended, perhaps unconsciously, to conceal the thinness of the content. As for speeches, what do politicians pay their speech writers for?
The Prime Minister’s speech on NHS reform last week was a shocker for clichés: “pillar to post; in the driving seat; frontline; level playing field; cherry picking; one-size-fits-all; reinvent the wheel; let me be absolutely clear; no ifs or buts”. If each of those were not on the List before, they are now.
The List is expanding all the time. The most recent additions were “turbulent priest”, after the reporting last week of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s article saying that no one voted for the Coalition’s policies. Also banned last week: “What a difference a day makes”, which was used on Newsnight to mean: “Yesterday we reported something and today the Government has done something about it.” It is a bit like “a week is a long time in politics”, which is as hard to eradicate as cockroaches.
After the eruption of Labour fratricide – I was going to say “literally”, because they are brothers, but managed to stop myself because no one has died – “psychodrama” and “soap opera” are going straight on the List. (You may still use soap opera to describe television drama serials of the kind that used to have a lot of washing-powder advertisements in the breaks.)
Other recent additions to the List, which are over-used especially in politics and the reporting thereof, include “postcode lottery”, “evidence-based”, “metric” to mean “a measurement” and “around” to mean “about”, as in “campaigning on issues around gender”. Conservative ministers keep accusing Labour of having “maxed out” the nation’s credit card. America is a great country, but some of its slang is best in its native habitat. Labour, meanwhile, continues to demand a “plan B”. This is worse than a cliché, because it suggests that plan A, that is, George Osborne’s plan to cut the deficit, was the best plan, but now sadly cannot be done and so therefore the nation should move on to the second-best Labour option.
The internet is not destroying the language after all, then, but giving us new ways of shaming its most prominent practitioners into using it better. Let us set politicians a quiz. What are guarantees always made from? Cast iron. And with what are their bottoms made? Copper. And what are they not worth? The paper they are written on. (Or, alternatively, the paper that they are not written on.) For whom do politicians speak? The silent majority. Or hard-working families. Especially the ones who work hard and play by the rules.
Well, it turns out that the silent majority want to read and hear fresh, clear and original language. So go to independent.co.uk/bannedlist and nominate your suggestions for inclusion. I’d say we should crowd-source this project, but I’ve put crowd-source and project on the Banned List.
Rentoul’s banned list
1. Going forward.
2. Key, adjective. Esp. ‘keynote speech’.
3. End of.
6. In any way, shape or form.
7. Action as a verb.
8. Quantum leap, except to mean a change of state of an electron.
10. A no-brainer.
11. Does what it says on the tin.
12. Any journey not describing travel from A to B.
13. What’s not to like?
14. Beginning an article with “So”.
15. It’s in his/her/their DNA.
16. Daily basis.
17. Agenda, except to describe a list of things to be discussed in a meeting.
18. Psychodrama (to describe any tense political relationship).
The Banned List: Top 100
1. It’s the economy, stupid.
2. A week is a long time in politics. Or variants thereof, such as, “If a week is a long time in politics then a month seems an eternity.”
3. What part of x don’t you understand? Although this one seems to have nearly died out already.
4. Way beyond, or way more.
5. Any time soon.
6. “Events, dear boy, events.” (Except as the name of an excellent political blog, currently in abeyance.)
7. Learning curve.
8. Raising awareness.
9. Celebrating diversity.
10. In any way, shape or form.
12. Community, especially a vibrant one.
13. Hearts and minds.
17. Going forward.
18. A forward policy.
19. A big ask.
20. At this moment in time.
21. Not fit for purpose.
22. Hard-working families.
23. Apologies for lack of postings.
24. Black hole (in a financial context).
25. The elephant in the room.
26. Perfect storm.
27. Seal the deal.
28. A good election to lose.
30. Beginning an article with “So”.
31. IMO, IMHO, LOL, ROFL and so on. I mean, whose opinion is it going to be? Genuinely witty abbreviations, however, are permitted, for example, QTWTAIN, YYSSW, IICRS (Questions to Which the Answer is No; Yeah, Yeah, Sure, Sure, Whatever; Iraq Inquiry Coverage Rebuttal Service).
32. Vibrant (when used to mean lots of non-English people).
34. Arguably, as in “arguably the most perfect village in the Siebenburgen” (Spectator, 24 July 2010).
35. Headlines beginning “Now”, as in “Now You Pay for Prison Parties.”
36. We will take no lessons on x from y.
37. Beginning a report with “They came”.
39. “Action” as a verb.
41. The level of.
42. A sense of.
43. A series of.
44. The introduction of.
45. A package of. Especially measures.
46. A basket of.
47. A raft of.
48. A range of.
49. The prospect of.
50. (All) the hallmarks of.
51. “Leverage” as a verb.
52. U-turn as a verb.
53. Dislocate as a noun. Or disconnect.
54. Toilet, storyline or any other unsuitable noun as a verb.
55. Exponential or exponentially used to mean big or a lot.
56. Incredible or incredibly as intensifiers.
57. On a daily basis.
58. It’s in his/her/their DNA.
59. Let’s be clear.
60. At the end of the day.
61. Organic, to refer to anything unrelated to farming or to the chemical science that deals with carbon-based compounds.
62. “The truth is…” before the peddling of an opinion.
63. End of.
64. Any journey not describing travel from A to B.
65. A no-brainer.
66. Pot, kettle.
67. What’s not to like?
68. Max out (in relation to credit cards only).
69. He/she gets it. They get it. He/she/it just doesn’t get it.
70. “All the evidence tells us” to mean “I’ve read something about this somewhere that confirms my prejudices”.
71. Fairly unique.
72. Paradigm shift. Or anything to do with a paradigm.
73. Quantum leap, except to mean a very small change of fixed magnitude.
74. Step change.
75. Sea change.
76. Real people and the real world. In real time.
77. Coffee, the waking up and smelling thereof.
79. Project, except in the construction industry.
80. “No longer.” (Following a loving description of The Way We Were.)
81. Agenda, except to describe a list of things to be discussed in a meeting.
82. Out of the box (especially thinking).
83. Kick the can down the road.
84. Psychodrama. (To describe any tense political relationship.)
85. Radar, to be on someone’s, or to be under the.
86. Name and shame.
87. Does what it says on the tin.
90. Key (adjective). Especially keynote speech.
91. Enough already.
92. Who knew?
93. Epic fail.
94. See what I/he/she did there?
95. Not so much.
96. Beleaguered, except of a city, town or fort with turrets.
97. Rolling out, except carpet, wallpaper or logs.
98. Forward planning (until invention of time machine allowing other kinds).
99. “And yet, and yet …”
100. The suffix -gate added to any news theme supposedly embarrassing to a government.
The original Banned List was, of course, George Orwell’s in 1946: dying metaphors (“Examples are: 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, hotbed”); verbal false limbs (“Characteristic phrases are render inoperative, militate against, make contact with, be subjected to, give rise to, give grounds for, have the effect of, play a leading part (role) in, make itself felt, take effect, exhibit a tendency to, serve the purpose of”); pretentious diction (“Words like phenomenon, element, individual (as noun), objective, categorical, effective, virtual, basic, primary, promote, constitute, exhibit, exploit, utilise, eliminate, liquidate”); and meaningless words (his examples included “class, totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary, bourgeois, equality”).
And Orwell’s six rules hold good:
Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
Never use a long word where a short one will do.
If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
Never use the passive where you can use the active.
Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
It should also be noted that the Committee has decreed that some phrases are compulsory.