Attack of the meaningless nounsby / August 8, 2013 / Leave a comment
A couple or so years ago, the university where I teach introduced a new way for staff to record information about tutorials, grandly calling it the “Co-Tutor Student Management Relationship System.” The name possesses the linguistic features that appeal to managers today: nouns strung together without intervening prepositions, with some of the nouns conveying generally desirable qualities (“relationship,” “system”). Despite its pomposity the name is vague: it doesn’t tell you what sorts of relationships are being systematically managed or who might be doing the managing.
Managers can also favour long words which make simple actions seem rather grand. One example that linguists like to cite is the word “autocondimentation.” The story is that managers in the catering industry devised the word to describe the practice of customers applying sauce to their hamburgers: the long word made the managers appear expert.
According to critical linguists, who have studied official and ideological language, there are good reasons why managers might like such language. By using nouns or verbs in the passive voice, authorities can present their own decisions as if they were objective realities, rather than as actions arbitrarily taken by powerful persons. If you put up a notice saying “Pedestrians are requested not to walk on the grass,” (or better still, “No Access”) you don’t have to say who is requesting (or, rather, commanding) the pedestrians.
Those who work in British universities are aware of the Research Excellence Framework, a group of nouns capable of striking fear into the calmest of academics. By choosing nouns—and nouns alone—our authorities can convey that the so-called “framework” for judging the research of academic staff, has some sort of independent existence (thereby leaving in the linguistic shadows those who devise, run and benefit from all the judging) and that somehow the whole business really does have something to do with a thing called “research excellence.”
When academic linguists have exposed the modern power of big nouns, they have tended to use exactly the same sort of language themselves. Like other social scientists, and like the managers of universities and other big businesses, critical linguists have shown a penchant for big nouns. They write about the language of managers being filled with “nominalization” and “passivization”; and they refer to the coining of new managerial terms, such as “autocondimentation,” as “relexicalization.” Just like the catering managers, the linguists can use big words to bolster their expertise.
Throughout the social sciences, we can find academics parading their big nouns and their noun-stuffed noun-phrases. By giving something an official name, especially a multi-noun name which can be shortened to an acronym, you can present yourself as having discovered something real—something to impress the inspectors from the Research Excellence Framework.
Social scientists commonly justify their use of big words by saying that ordinary language is hopelessly vague and that social scientific terminology, although it might be awkward, is at least precise. However, the opposite is true: ordinary words usually convey much more information than the big words of the social scientists, especially when used to describe ordinary actions.
Social scientists tend to use their big words and noun phrases in imprecise ways. For example, linguists use the term “nominalization” to describe very different ways speakers and writers might turn verbs into nouns. They also use the same word to describe the resulting nouns, rather than the processes involved in using and/or creating such nouns. And no one seems bothered by the different meanings. Instead, linguists carry on using the term as if it describes a “thing” that they have collectively discovered.
There is another reason that social scientists, especially those on the left, have given for using difficult words. The great French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, wrote about the difficulties of using ordinary language to analyse the nature of the social world. Sociologists, according to Bourdieu, need to distance themselves from everyday assumptions which are built into the meanings of ordinary words. Therefore social critics should treat ordinary language with suspicion and develop their own technical terminology.
This view has led some analysts to value difficult writing for its own sake. For instance, Jonathan Culler put together a collection of literary theorists extolling the virtues of difficulty. It was as if ordinary people, using ordinary words, had no chance of understanding the situations in which they found themselves.
Maybe it is time for social scientists to reject this self-interested valuing of difficulty and linguistic innovation. We live in times when those with authority find it advantageous to devise new words and noun-filled phrases. Academics, nowadays, should suspect the confusing power of technical language, including their own, rather than look down upon the clarity of ordinary words.
In his great essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell advised us to avoid big words and passive sentences. Clarity, Orwell wrote, was a matter of politics, not aesthetics, for those who write unclearly will think unclearly. It is always in the interests of the powerful if the rest of us cannot think clearly about who holds power in society and how they execute that power. Now, more than ever, we should take Orwell’s message seriously.
Michael Billig is the author of “Learn to Write Badly: how to succeed in the social sciences” (Cambridge University Press)