Whereas this editorial leader is at least in part calculated to obfuscate momentous contemporary issues, the better to emerge astonishingly prescient after the fact, it will deliberately adopt a stance of maximum evenhandedness, indeed obliquity, and trust an indefatigable readership to plumb, if not fully and definitively discern, the authentic liberal intent herein through the pleonastic haze.
Just kidding. The Japan Times would never sink so low. As a public service, however, it will award a prize for the best attempt to put that sentence into plain English and find the speck of meaning at its core.
The sad fact is that we could all use the practice. Every day, readers of English are confronted with equally horrible examples of gobbledygook, which they must either struggle to decode themselves or, more likely, pay someone to explain to them.
The legal and medical professions have long been reviled for their lucrative habit of mystifying the language — any language. Jesus Christ himself said, “Woe unto you, lawyers! For ye have taken away the key of knowledge,” and that perception hasn’t changed much in two millennia. But, as a useful British organization called the Plain English Campaign points out, purposeful obscurities are not just committed by doctors and lawyers any more, though they remain among the worst offenders. Jargon is a spreading curse, affecting the English language in fields from academia and government to education and finance (though not, it should be noted, in advertising, where people are paid to know the value of crystal-clear communication). And for the most part there is no excuse for the waffle, as there arguably is in law, where a case can be won or lost on the strength of a comma or a category more or less.
Here in Japan, native English speakers have traditionally been amused, and bemused, by the creative obscurities of so-called Japlish — with its “flesh fluits,” “happy coffees,” “puppy life” and the rest. But imagine the bemusement of Japanese trying to comprehend real English as it is too often written today. Earlier this month, the Plain English Campaign handed out its annual awards, some for the year’s best examples of language clearly and concisely used, and some — the dreaded Golden Bull Awards — for just the opposite. This year, there were a record 11 winners of the twaddle prize, most of them the work of lawyers, bureaucrats, educators and business wonks. (Our favorite, from the Tonbridge and Malling Borough Council, gives any Japlish gem a run for its money: “Take notice that the . . . Council, in pursuance of their powers as Local Planning Authority under Section 198 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, has made a Tree Preservation Order [a copy whereof together with the map included therein is enclosed herewith] in respect of:-. . .”)
It would be funny if it didn’t matter so much. Sometimes the information is critical: You might land in serious trouble if you can’t make head or tail of the notice from the local gas board, the insert in your new prescription drug, the contract you sign to buy a house, or even your child’s school curriculum. Sometimes the loss is less tangible: It isn’t a life-or-death matter not to be able to understand a newspaper column, a piece of literary criticism, a music review or a politician’s speech. Yet add up all these losses and they amount to a serious diminishment in ordinary people’s capacity to understand, control or simply enjoy all the things going on around them.
The defenders of prolixity — and they exist — say that in their specialized fields, whatever those might be, simplicity of expression means “dumbing down.” That is a red herring. There is nothing wrong with mathematicians, scientists, economists, philosophers or anyone else using such specialized language as they require, on the job. But information on which ordinary people must base everyday choices and decisions can and should be directly comprehensible to them, and that means everything from leaflets to contracts. In addition, there are far fewer “specialists” than one might think. Historians and literary critics, to take two of the biggest categories of offender, have nothing to say that cannot be said in plain English, for all that some of them pretend otherwise. More often than not, billowing verbiage is merely a sign of hot air within.
The French have a saying: “Ce qui n’est pas clair n’est pas francais” — “What is not clear is not French.” Whether that is still the case today we don’t know; perhaps the jargon contagion has spread beyond English in the wake of globalization, itself an unrivaled engine of cant. But as an ideal, that sentence can hardly be bettered, in any language.
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