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Language has always been globalized in the sense that its always been transacted and borrowed between different speakers. Foreign words are snatched that appeal to speakers, for reasons of ease and commerce, and to a large degree, in order to acquire some status.

It’s not a frictionless transaction; there are some things we like, and others we detest and would prefer expunged.

The Italian writer Annamaria Testa put a very good analysis on her blog that critiqued the use of English in Italian. This was not a rant about English and its import into Italian; she said that some ideas and phrases have a place. Her analysis was on the wholesale and rather silly use of English words in Italian that made for a type of pidgin dialect. She gave a very good example of this run riot where every third word is English. She then did the same sentence in Italian to demonstrate to her fellow native speakers that the same ideas could be expressed in Italian just as well.

Apart from the list of all the words that seem to have been adopted in Itangliano – as she calls it – is the discussion where people posted questions on how to translate English back to Italian. As always on these type of forums there seems to be groundswell of contempt for the speakers who are not true to their language and themselves.

Here would be the right place to segue (not Segway, though that trademark seems to have become the eponym) into that long running dispute over jargon. I say long running, because Gowers’s Plain Words was published in 1948 and this irritation over bogus language has not dimmed. In fact, it may have got stronger.

Gowers wrote his book as a manual for the UK Treasury in 1946. It was privately distributed to civil servants. In the years since it first appeared, government has adopted the nefarious habits of marketing and uses slogans and brand promises and all the other vacuous panoply of business bingo linguistics. Gowers would be perturbed by the asinine progress of public language, though as an English civil servant of his generation, his phlegmatic demeanor would not express it.

The one thing that connects Testa’s criticism of English usage and the viral spread of government jargon is the desire for status. Dropping foreign words shows education, and perhaps travel experience, both of which are proxies for financial status. Using abstract and convoluted syntax and jargon, which limits understanding to a few, is another form of status seeking. It’s impossible to prevent that motive; it’s a very strong impulse to climb above others and show off to the group.

Meanwhile the rest of us must suffer. We can ignore it, just like an expensive car, which the driver wants and hope we will gawk at, in admiration.

The other alternative is to laugh at it. That is usually a good way to prick pomposity. The inveterate foreign word and phrase dropper, who doesn’t get it right, is funny for the rest of us. Similarly, grammatical correction can be better when the prig is brought down a peg or two.

Guy Cranswick
20th April 2014

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