Listen to the Wordsmiths: When words are hogwash

“’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’.”
That was Lewis Carroll writing in the 19th Century when words meant something. Now words mean less rather than more, especially when spoken by politicians. It is a major theme of a book written by a wordsmith, Don Watson (photo above), award-winning author and former speechwriter to Prime Minister Paul Keating. In his introduction to Worst Words: A compendium of contemporary cant, gibberish and jargon (Random House, 439 pages), Watson chronicles how one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century, Graham Greene, liked Fidel Castro, even his four-hour orations. Greene wrote that Castro’s speeches were “not made up of evasions and oratorical tricks and big abstract words … they are full of information, down to earth, filled with details … he is the revolutionary brain in action …”
Watson uses a random sample of managerial language as an example of words that mean nothing: “In particular, the degree of formality evidenced across universities, regarding the documentation of risk strategy and risk appetite, processes to identify and manage risk, and reporting on new and emerging risks suggests that rigour in risk management is a key enabler in improving organisational performance.” Whew!
That prompts Watson to sum up what’s wrong with public language in this succinct paragraph, ending with one of my favourite words: “All public language inclines to pomposity and deceit, but modern public language inclines these ways acutely and nails it to the inclination. Unlike Greene’s Castro, it is also evasive and dishonest in its essence; abstract, devoid of useful information and concrete example, remote from human reality, filled not with detail but with hogwash.” If I were in the audience listening to Don Watson recite that passage, I would give him a standing ovation.
Recently, I gave a small speech to a public meeting at a local golf club on a proposed merger of two councils in North Sydney: Ku-ring-gai (where I live), and Hornsby. I’ve written a post about the meeting, but I had to read the proposal put forward by the NSW Local Government Minister to see why he backed the amalgamation of two councils that were quite capable of standing alone. It was written in managerial language that meant nothing. Here is an example: “The government detailed the benefits of the merger in the proposal, including ‘improved strategic planning and economic development to better respond to the changing community’.” I added this: “That line could have come directly from the ABC TV (satirical) series, Utopia. What does it mean? Absolutely nothing.” The audience laughed as did Garry West, the delegate of the Office of Local Government CEO, who will consider the submissions and pass on his assessment. It made my day.
Don Watson explains in the introduction what’s harmful about the language of management: “. . . as far as I know, no one has studied the effects on human beings of long-term daily exposure to jargon and clichés: but we may assume that a world whose language defies visualisation, and is stripped of all lyric, comic and descriptive possibility, is far from and ideal human environment and some kind of trauma may result.”
Once you’ve read his excellent introduction, you can look up all the jargons and clichés and words that you hate quite easily, as the book is alphabetical, from Tony Abbott’s “absolute crap” to the Australasian Bottled Water Institute’s “zero kilojoule hydration option.” The former was Abbott’s assessment of climate change; the latter is more commonly known as water. Watson gives examples: “The argument (for climate change) is absolute crap.” And “People willing to pay for the convenience of a zero-kilojoule hydration option when they’re out and about.”
For my favourite “worst” phrase, “going forward(s),” Watson gives five references, as in “Excuse me, can you tell me the time going forwards?” Politicians are the worst offenders. Richard Marles, the Shadow Minister for Immigration, who is also a co-host for a Sky News current affairs show on Saturday morning with Education Minister, Christopher Pyne, has four mentions in this category: two for the Julia Gillard ALP campaign slogan in the 2010 election. Here’s one Marlesism from the ABC: “What is very clear in terms of the best interests of the Labor Party now, what is very clear going forward is that everybody unites behind Julia Gillard.” And another one from the Sydney Morning Herald: “In terms of going forward we are utterly committed to the fact that we need to make sure.”
Watson also inserts some of his worst words to famous speeches to show how ridiculous they sound. For example, “access,” which has become a buzzword, as in Access Economics, and shows up in this Human Rights Commission report: “Language is a key issue of access for people from any non-English-speaking culture …” And from the sublime speech to the ridiculous word, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, with a not-so-accessible ending: “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal (and should have equal access).” Poor Abe is probably spinning in his grave over that one.
I could go on, but I suggest you pick up a copy of Worst Words, and see if some of your most hated phrases have also earned a guernsey on Watson’s website: where you can send your examples of atrocious words. It all started with his 2004 book, Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language and continued in 2005 with Watson’s Dictionary of Weasel Words. And I almost forgot. Yes, Malcolm Turnbull does get a mention or two. Remember one of his first speeches as Prime Minister in September 2015? If so, you must be agile and innovative: “The Australia of the future has to be a nation that is agile, that is innovative, that is creative.”
If you like Worst Words, you’ll also enjoy a more formal book about language: Modern Australian Usage: A Practical Guide for Writers & Editors, 3rd Edition (Allen & Unwin, also 439 pages!). The author is another wordsmith, Nicholas Hudson, a long-time editor and publisher working with Australian writing and writers. In his preface, he describes what the guide is all about: “The issues it discusses are not invented: they are the issues which most often arise. The questions are the questions most asked. The mistakes are the mistakes most often made.”
It’s a well-written, readable book, and Hudson says its major inspiration was Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, “as will be obvious (but I hope not objectionably so) to lovers of Fowler.” I can’t say I’m in love with H.W. Fowler, but I have a 1984 edition of the book in its original form which he began planning with his brother Francis in 1911 that I have consulted on quite a few occasions in the past three decades. It’s a classic and every library should have a copy. Fowler was a scholar, but he wasn’t dry or pedantic, as you can tell by his lovely dedication of the book to his brother, who died before it was published. Francis George Fowler died in 1918, at the age of 47, of tuberculosis contracted during his service with the British Expeditionary Force in 1915-16. H.W. Fowler writes: “To the memory of my brother … who shared with me the planning of this book, but did not live to share the writing. I think of it as it should have been, with its prolixities docked, its dullness enlivened, its fads eliminated, its truths multiplied. He had a nimbler wit, a better sense of proportion, and a more open mind, than his twelve-year-older partner.” Hudson writes like that, too as he profiles himself in the preface: “ … it is a book written by an amateur, in both senses of that abused word. Firstly, it is by an unashamed lover of words in general, and of the Australian idiom in particular. Secondly, it is by one who is not a professional scholar.” Honest and humble, Hudson may not be a professional scholar, but he’s a professional writer.
He also writes about grammar, five succinct pages which tell you everything you needed to know about grammar but were afraid to ask: “If people say that they know no grammar, they are talking rubbish. If they knew no grammar, they would not be able to understand us and would not be able to construct sentences which we could understand. What they generally mean is that they do not know the jargon of grammar, so they cannot describe the rules. In this respect, grammar is like sex. Most people can do it, but if they want to discuss it they had better learn the names of the parts.” Sex: What a wonderful way to introduce grammar!
Hudson has an entry on weasel words, where he praises Don Watson’s “monumental book” for “creating a list which has been added to every day since (2004).” He says Watson’s examples “are so good that I need quote only one: John Kerry, America’s ever-more-pontifical secretary of state, recently began an answer about Middle East peace negotiations by declaring, as he often does: ‘I want to make this crystal clear.’ He then went on: ‘The president is desirous of trying to see how we can make our best efforts in order to find a way to facilitate’.”
Nicholas Hudson’s comment on Kerry’s declaration is so good, he deserves the last word:
“I fear that some Australian politicians have used even more words to say even less.”

Raags to riches in India

“If I were to begin life again, I would devote it to music. It is the only cheap and unpunished rapture upon earth.”

That was Sydney Smith, English writer and clergyman (1771-1845), on music as an addiction. Manisha Jolie Amin also has a love affair with the raag, a type of musical form in India – the word raag meaning mood.

I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated what a raag is, but Manisha Amin certainly has, and her novel, Dancing to the Flute, is an ode to its beauty. The tale starts slowly as Kalu, a cheeky street orphan, plays a tune with a leaf rolled into a pipe as he’s perched in a banyan tree in the village of Hastinapore.

Along comes a healer, a Vaid (don’t worry, there’s a glossary in the back of the book), who hears the sound of music: “The sound, sweet and clear, rode the wind, snaking through the tree and down into the village.” When Vaid Dada offers to fix his injured foot, Kalu is reluctant because he can’t pay, but the healer gives him ten rupees and says his music will pay for his treatment.

Okay, you say, another one of those Indian novels, focussing on nature and art and folklore. Wrong.  Once you get through that lyrical first chapter, the story turns to Kalu’s entry into the real world of music, studying under a master musician, brother of the healer.

What sets this first novel apart from others are its well-drawn characters; the use of stories told to the author by her mother, and knowledge of the flute and songs supplied by her father, who played the instrument. It is also beautifully written, deceptively simple in its language, but layered with emotion and empathy.

Kalu loves the flute and wants to be a musician, but is torn between leaving his friends, Bal, a buffalo boy, and, Malti, a servant girl, in the house of Ganga Ba, his first benefactor, and going to the house of Guruji, a teacher, and world-class musician, to learn how to play properly.

After hearing Kalu play a plastic flute, the Vaid tells him: “Never be scared to play. This sound, this music is a part of you, just like the tears on your face. You cannot throw it away. It will not let you’.” He takes Kalu to his brother, who’s retired to the hills, tired of the travel and the cost of fame.

The relationship between Kalu and Guruji is one of the strengths of Dancing to the Flute. Ashwin, Guruji’s right-hand man, is another strong character. When the teacher agrees to accept the street urchin as his student, Ashwin says: “Listen Kalu, you have a gift. Vaid Dada wouldn’t have brought you here otherwise. You need to trust that. And Guruji will make a real musician out of you, Kalu, despite himself.”

Although Vaid Dada denies it to his brother, there is an element of Pygmalion to the story. Guruji teaches him to read and write and the value of books: “Books can teach you things, can take you to places you couldn’t possibly go otherwise. And they are the great equaliser.” And to prove it, when Kalu writes a letter to Ganga Ba, she brings in all the servants to
read it to them.

Amin as narrator tells the story of the wolf boy brought up by a pack of wolves in the jungle, and Malti back in the village remembers the tale, and thinks Kalu is just as interesting, “his foot, the miracle of its healing and his promotion to student from beggar boy made him newsworthy. She hoped he was finding the change easier than she imagined the wolf boy did, or than even she would have. Malti liked things to stay the same.”


Another interesting character is Martin, a Western musician, who has come to Guruji to learn classical Indian music after hearing Ravi Shankar play at the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York City. Guruji takes Martin on so that he can teach Kalu as well: “I’d like him to be able to read, write and play music the Western way. Not so that he become a Western musician, but – and I mean this, Kalu – so he understands your world as you learn his.”

It was about this time in my reading of the novel that I realised it reminded me of that great Indian novelist, R.K. Narayan, who I first came across in the 1980s when The University of Chicago Press published a series of his books set in Malgudi, a city of his own creation. Graham Greene was a big fan of Narayan. In his praise, Greene talked about writers like Tolstoy, Henry James, Turgenev, Chekhov and Conrad “who hold us at a long arm’s length with their ‘courtly foreign grace’,” and then added: “Narayan (whom I don’t hesitate to name in such a context) more than any of them wakes in me a spring of gratitude, for he has offered me a second home. Without him I could never have known what it is like to be Indian.”

Here’s a little snippet from his first novel, Swami and Friends, published in 1935, about a protest against the British featuring the main character: “Somebody asked him: ‘Young man, do you want our country to remain in eternal slavery?’ ‘No, No.’ Swaminathan replied. ‘But you are wearing a foreign cap.’ Swaminathan quailed with shame. ‘Oh, I didn’t notice,’ he said, and removing his cap flung it into the fire with a feeling he was saving the country.”

I’m not saying Manisha Amin is at Narayan’s level, but this is only her first novel, and like the famous Indian writer concentrates on ordinary people like Malti and Bal and those who gather outside the gate of Guruji’s house to listen to Kalu play. And she takes on tough issues like arranged marriages – Malti’s unhappy union with a man who left her alone until dawn on her wedding night. Amin uses the character of Guruji to teach Kalu valuable lessons about life. After a tragic event, he tells his student: “You will never forget this pain. I know nothing I say will truly make a difference to you at this point. But you can take your experiences and choose how they change you.” That last line is reminiscent of what playwright Arthur Miller said to the writer Joe McGinniss in his book Heroes: “To exist constantly in a state of controlled hysteria. It’s agony. But everyone has agony. The difference is that I try to take my agony home and teach it to sing.” (Joe McGinniss will be speaking about his book on Sarah Palin at the Sydney Writers’ Festival next weekend: )

The scenes at the end of the book between Kalu and Malti and Bal and Guruji are so moving, I had to wipe away the tears. Unfortunately, that means I can’t give you any details, otherwise it will spoil the ending. All I can say is that there is a lot of dancing to the flute in the final chapter. And Kalu finds that “the real gift he’d been given wasn’t the flute itself, but the way it had helped him to find the people he needed most.”

My only complaint, and it’s a minor one, is that I had trouble understanding the explanations of the raag, with its aalaaps and jors and antaras and bol bandhs which introduce each section of the book – all written by Guruji. I don’t know much about music, except that it can make me happy and move me to tears, but these standfirsts slowed me down, particularly at the end – except the last line of the final introduction to the last part: “It’s the release of breath that the audience makes as the last note dies away.” That I can understand, but I’d suggest putting it all in an introduction so that readers can go back to it, if necessary, as they would with the glossary. And, to be fair, the author has provided a list of books and articles about the music in the novel after the acknowledgements, for those interested.

Speaking of acknowledgements, they are lovely. Born in Kenya and a frequent traveller to India, Manisha Jolie Amin thanks her family for help on the Indian background – the Gujarati language, the songs, the stories et al. She writes: “This book would never have been written had I not experienced the beauty of the raag. My sincere thanks to the musicians that dedicate their life to this form of music.”

I’d like to thank them, too, for making this book possible.

Dancing to the Flute, Manisha Jolie Amin, Allen & Unwin, 342 pages, $29.99

Sarah Ferguson at Press Freedom Dinner


Before I go, a brief wrap on the Media Alliance’s Press Freedom Dinner in Sydney last week. The highlights were the speeches by Laurie Oakes of Channel Nine and Sarah Ferguson of the ABC’s Four Corners – Gold Walkley winners and passionate journalists. Laurie spoke about how the Convergence Review Committee absorbed the work of the Finkelstein inquiry and was well received – “mainly because it recommends an industry-led body to oversee standards, rather than the dreaded statutory authority favoured by Finkelstein.” Laurie Oakes also made the important point that public trust in the media is declining and we need to rebuild that trust.

Sarah’s speech was the “best ever,” in my opinion, on how press freedom often depends on non-journalists like bloggers and citizen journalists and activists like Lyn White of Animals Australia, who shot the footage of cattle slaughter in Indonesia, before Four Corners took their own for their story A Bloody Business. She blasted newspapers and television stations for running stories alleging the ABC’s animal footage being fake, and ABC 24 for repeating the stories without calling her or the producer to check. And she told the lovely story about Hussain Nasir, an Iraqi refugee, who helped Four Corners with their 2010 report, Smugglers’ Paradise, wearing a hidden camera into some of the most dangerous places in Indonesia. A former operative with US Special Forces in Iraq, Hussain told Four Corners: “I must destroy these bad people and the people behind them.” During the course of the program, Hussain risks his life and helps expose six major people smugglers. The UNHCR approves the resettlement of him and his wife and four children, and his family eventually gets to Australia. At the last minute, his resettlement is cancelled. Four Corners and the ABC then worked hard to get him here … and there is a happy ending. During her speech, Sarah Ferguson introduced Hussain Nasir, who was sitting at the ABC table, to the Press Freedom Dinner audience, and he received a long and well-deserved ovation. Bravo Sarah Ferguson, Four Corners and Hussain Nasir.

Lest we forget: Chris Warren, the Federal Secretary of the Media Alliance, told the dinner that 106 journalists and media personnel were killed last year, according to the International Federation of Journalists. For many journalists, the freedom of the press is a cause to die for.

Update: Saturday 5.40pm AEST. And the Newseum in Washington DC will rededicate its Journalists Memorial on Monday, May 14 at 10am (midnight Tuesday Australian EST), honouring journalists and media personnel who died covering the news in 2011. Among those honoured will be reporter Paul Lockyer and cameraman John Bean of the ABC, who were killed in a helicopter crash, along with their pilot Gary Ticehurst, in South Australia last August. Paul Lockyer’s sons, Nicholas and Jamie, will be attending the ceremony on Monday. The memorial honours 2,156 reporters, photographers, broadcaster and news executives from around the world, dating back to 1837. The CEO of the Newseum, James C. Duff, said: “The Newseum is proud to honour these journalists who paid the ultimate sacrifice in pursuit of the truth.” Hear, hear!

Update: Friday, May 18, 2.49pm And here’s how the ABC AM program covered the moving ceremony on Tuesday morning (Australian time):