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Monday, August 02, 2004
Wary blogging is not the best blogging. For reasons that cannot be disclosed here, we are having to be more, er, circumspect in the venting of opinions and the mounting of personal and easily recognisable hobbyhorses.

In practice, that means a certain amount of self-censorship and, inevitably, fewer impulsive, spur-of-the-moment postings.

It also means that some of the specifics and detailed bits of local colour that might have added piquant and salacious interest to this blog must now be left on the cutting room floor.

For example, we've been witnesses lately to some fine examples of business newspeak, where repeated and determined abuse of certain words has cowed many people into believing that their meanings have changed.

While we discuss this in the abstract, it's necessarily hard to make the issue come alive. People want instances. They want to feel the frisson of fear, as they suddenly realise that this is — or could be — about the very company they work for.

It's the Dilbert factor, the feeling Scott Adams generates that convinces you someone has told him all about your manager, your company, your fellow-employees, maybe even your own bad habits.

But many of these corporate verbal tics are so outrageous and perverse that they immediately identify particular companies. They have become part of one company's mutated lexicon, to the point where they are as unique and recognisable as a fingerprint or a DNA sample.

That makes it potentially dangerous to quote examples, especially for those of us without ample private incomes.

For example, a friend of ours works for an IT company that has become so tangled up in its own verbosity that it now thinks it can make words mean whatever it wants them to mean.

Like Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass, this company believes it can bend the English language to its will.

`When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'

`The question is,' said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

`The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master — that's all.'

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything; so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. `They've a temper, some of them — particularly verbs: they're the proudest — adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs — however, I can manage the whole lot of them!

Never mind the dubious punctuation in the last sentence. Never mind the fact that both Alice and Humpty come across as the sort of half-right pedants you want to shoot (or scramble) on sight.

There's never been a passage that makes the main point with such crushing force.

What you mean to say counts for nothing.

What matters is what comes out of your mouth or streams out from your fingertips on the keyboard. Nothing else means a thing. And no amount of corporate grunting and heaving will force those words to mean what the company wants them to mean.

One day, when we're feeling braver, we'll come back to this topic with a full-scale list of corporate gobbledygook, naming the names and shaming the shameful. For now, though, it's enough to remember that the principle should be hovering in the back of every e-editor's mind every working day.

Oh, and while we're here, Humpty Dumpty was right about the verbs, of course. They are the key to good style and clear expression, not least because choosing the right verb often rules out the need for whole clusters of adjectives and nouns that might otherwise be used to trim and balance the nuances of a sentence.

Lewis Carroll may have been a mathematician, but he knew more about the algebra of language than anyone before or since.

The live blog for everybody who lives and dies by the word. The UK's top guide to editing better and getting more respect for it is at www.e-editor.co.uk.

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