Language is so emotionally wrought that we sometimes forget it is just a tool for effective communication.
For the first 20 years of my life my family’s home was on the south coast of England, and Bournemouth was the nearest fairly large town. I therefore had a measure of sympathy for Bournemouth’s council when it was ridiculed last week for banning its staff from using certain Latin words and phrases. The ban, imposed by a number of local authorities, has been justified on the ground that the use of the Latin words might confuse people.
Among the critics of the ban was Professor Mary Beard, a classics professor at the University of Cambridge, who described it as “absolute bonkers and the linguistic equivalent of ethnic cleansing. English is and always has been a language full of foreign words. It has never been an ethnically pure language.” Of course, she has a point, even if her use of “ethnic cleansing” is a bit over the top.
The Bournemouth council felt that it had been unjustly calumnified, and pointed out that it had not banned any Latin words or phrases, explaining: “Two years ago, we issued advice to our staff to encourage plain, appropriate and easily-understood language. This includes considering whether or not various phrases, including jargon and Latin, are appropriate for the particular audience that the information is aimed at.”
Some councils have banned staff from using Latin words on the ground of possible confusion, and this has been welcomed by the Plain English Campaign which says some officials only use Latin to make themselves feel important.
Inevitably, the ban has offered commentators a marvellous opportunity to attack “political correctness”, and if the ban took an extreme form, it would indeed be easy to see it in these terms. It would be unrealistic, for example, to dictate that a council (or any organisation) should arrange a meeting without an agenda, or complain if an omnibus ran from a terminus. It would be easier to make a prima facie case that there was no bona fide reason to use bona fide – though I think I would argue that it might be used ad lib.
My guess is that few people are actually confused by e.g. (exempli gratia), or are likely to read it as “egg”, and few also misled by i.e. (id est) — simply because these are widely used, by people most of whom have no knowledge of Latin. In short, many Latin words and phrases have become integral parts of English as it is widely and daily used.
That said, it is undoubtedly true also that some people have revelled in using Latin as a kind of badge. Lawyers were particularly prone to it, and trotted out phrases such as de minimis non curat lex (the law does not concern itself with trifling things) — probably mainly from habit, but also, perish the thought, to impress their clients. In recent years, lawyers have deliberately moved away from that practice, and they have surely been right to do so.
Getting it across
The basic principle of effective communication, I suggest, is that it should be clear. Using Latin, except in cases where a word or phrase has fully entered into the language (e.g. agenda), is likely to contravene that principle. Those who are concerned about that — and I think it is something we should all be concerned about — would do well to focus our attention on the frequent use of English in ways which infringe that basic principle without any help from Latin. Simon Hoggart, in his parliamentary sketch in The Guardian, produced some excellent examples of this kind of jargon when writing about a meeting between a parliamentary committee and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Governor of the bank of England, and the Chairman of the Financial Services Authority. My favourite was from Lord Turner (the FSA chairman), speaking of “counter-cyclical capital requirements”, “capital arbitrage” and “reducing the amplitude of the credit cycle”.
I suggest there is a case for taking a more critical look at linguistic confusion generally, and so far as Latin is concerned, accepting the status quo.
The Latin controversy provided us with some mild amusement, while at the same time reminding us that the English language is truly international. During the same period that the controversy raged, we had a far more important demonstration that the U.K., though in some things depressingly insular, can behave internationally. Public interest in the United States presidential election — far greater than that usually aroused by our own parliamentary elections — was enormous. No one doubted that it was a world-changing event.
Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge, U.K. Email him at: email@example.com
7 months ago