“I’ve Had Enough of Your Big Words!”

Senator Frank Walker when speaking to me on the phone to say he was getting me sacked.

I nearly wrote another Anatomy of a Spin article today – having received a press release extolling one of the dumbest and most cynical States decisions (and I know, that’s a high quantum) I have ever seen.

But I will leave my response to this for another day. Frankly, I almost need to go and have a lie-down in a darkened room; it’s a deeply taxing experience just trying to grasp the transparent ineptitude of abolishing prescription charges for the rich when health spends of real benefit could have been the target of the money instead.

Oh well – I guess every cloud has a silver lining – at least I can go see my doctor and get some free valium now.

Tom Lehrer is quoted as having said that political satire became obsolete the moment the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Henry Kissinger – a man who met most civilised people’s description of a mass-murdering war-criminal.

And likewise – such is the degree of self-parody engaged in by the States of Jersey, I could as well just copy it’s press releases here – interspersed with a few choice quotes from the Jersey Hansard for the purposes of comparison and contrast, obviously.

But – today I thought I would drift away from Jersey politics for a while and muse upon a criticism which is often made of me.

I have a confession to make – I love using big, complex words. I’m accused of making my speeches unintelligible by using phrases which we just don’t often come across on a day-to-day basis. But I do this not because I’m some kind of learned intellectual, I’m not. I left school at the age of 15 with no qualifications whatsoever and having learnt only two – admittedly very useful – skills; namely how to block a right hook and how to open beer bottles with my teeth. (Yep, “education” courtesy of the States of Jersey.)

I guess I am what would be described as an autodidact. My grasp of things – my understanding of the world – such as it is – has been gleaned largely through my own curiosity. And for some reason, I find the English language fascinating – perhaps it’s something to do with being a not very good aspiring poet. Since I was a kid I found the cadences, rhythms, flows and percussiveness of words attractive.

Words accumulate in my head, perhaps actually because of my lack of education. I so often come across words which I freely admit to not having the first idea as to their meaning, that I always go and look them up in the dictionary. Once the meaning of a particularly attractive word is rolling around upstairs, in all its textuality, it’s like having a new gadget – you just have to use it.

I’ll give you a few examples. Just the other day I came across the word “periphrasis”. I vaguely knew that the prefix ‘peri’ meant ‘about’ or ‘around’ – or something like that. But periphrasis? Not a clue. So, off to the dictionary I went, where I discover it means talking around a subject – circumlocution if you will – instead of addressing the real issue head-on. Now this phrase is fixed in my mind – and just burning to be used; perhaps next time I’m enduring a particularly tedious speech in the Jersey parliament. “I would be grateful if the member would abandon his periphrasis” perhaps?

Another example: – “polysyndetic” – which I discovered recently. It means a type of prose which has sentences of extended length through the extensive use of conjunctions to separate clauses.

I’ve been accused of being pretentious for using obscure language in this way. But, actually, I find it entertaining – funny even. For example, some months ago during a debate in the Jersey parliament I used a phrase which left most people in blank incomprehension. And this isn’t a criticism – it would have gone completely over my head a week earlier.

When reading the Guardian (and don’t tell anyone that, OK? The Jersey oligarchy will have me rounded up as a dangerous subversive if it gets out that I’m a Guardian reader) I came across the phrase “casus belli”, which, I didn’t really understand, though I had read it previously. It’s a Latin phrase meaning the “case (or incident) for war”. Upon my nerdish trawlings through Wikipedia, I discovered the ancient Greek equivalent – which is “proschema” or, even better, “proschemata”, which is the plural.

Mmm – ‘proschemata’ – it’s irresistible, isn’t it? So – when an unlikely political alliance in the States assembly was pressing a particular campaign, I just couldn’t resist using the phrase ‘inchoate proschemata’ to describe the various factions’ contributions to the case for ‘battle’. (‘inchoate’: recently started, elementary, not fully formed).

One can while away the hours of Beckettitian tragicomic bleakness by translating good, everyday, English phrases into “posh”.

For example, that time-honoured and proud phrase deeply embedded in British culture “come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough”, has been translated as “proceed to make an attempt should you consider yourself sufficiently resilient.”

And what this example illustrates is that things can be translated in both directions. When some expensively educated clown who is about to charge you £400 an hour to talk at you about the ‘locus standi’ of the person actioning you, your ‘mens rea’ and whether you face an “interlocutory” decision – you can say “look, mate, their beef just isn’t my problem, as I didn’t have a guilty mind so they can take a hike as far as getting the beak to put a temporary restraint on me goes.” This is the other reason I take care to understand words. Words – especially ‘clever’ or ‘expert’ words are very often used to render into obscurity that which is, in fact, pretty simple. Politicians, lawyers, stock-brokers, computer salesmen – all use, respectively, an obscure ‘trade’ language, which has the effect of making people feel ignorant, foolish, stupid and lost. This is quite deliberate. Once you are in this position – you need their ‘expert’ “services” to guide you out of the wild wood. You are under their power.

But when you equip yourself to cut through the ‘excreta’ – you take the power back; suddenly, you have a little more control over events in your own life. This is why I would recommend everyone to discover their inner nerd. The occasional flick through a dictionary may just help you to rip away the façade of one of the ‘new priesthoods’ of “experts”.

And big and complex words often dress-up the most outrageous rubbish; stuff that could have been produced by one of those internet sites which parody “management-speak”, for example.

A brilliant exposé of such garbage was carried out by the American physicist Alan Sokal. Increasingly angry at the misappropriation of natural science language by philosophers, he decided to write a “philosophical” paper and submit it to a respected peer-review philosophy journal called Social Text.

His ‘paper’ was accepted for publication at the first attempt. It was, of course, utter rubbish; a mishmash of genuine quotations from the literature of philosophy and science – liberally spiced and spliced with surreal ramblings of his own. The title he gave the paper, really, says it all: “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.”

The publication of the paper was, of course, hideously embarrassing to the philosophy ‘establishment’, especially the trendy Parisian ‘Left Bank’ group – who aren’t noted for their sense of humour at the best of times.

So next time someone talks to you of “extrapolating your asset cache towards the trajectory of your future modus operandi” – you will know what to say to them. As this is a family blog I won’t offer any examples – but, hey, you get the idea.

This Post’s Book:

Intellectual Impostures, by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont.

This Post’s Joke:

The First Law of Philosophy: For every philosopher, there exists an equal and opposite philosopher.

The Second Law of Philosophy: They’re both wrong.

One thought on ““I’ve Had Enough of Your Big Words!”

  1. TonyTheProf

    Just a note that Sokal published his fake work in “social text”, which was a postmodern cultural studies journal, and not a philosophy journal. I am sure that most modern philosophers
    (for example, Mary Midgley, Simon Blackburn, John Searle to name but a few) would not have been fooled for a moment. It is the postmodern culture studies lot that got fooled. There is a huge abyss between the two.

    On modern political philosophy, you might find John Rawls “Theory of Justice” interesting in looking at what makes a fair and just society.

    Tony

    Reply

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