semantics

For A’ That 36 – What Does It Mean?

BD4WCPjCMAE_0ly.jpg largeFor the 36th episode of For A’ That, Andrew and I were joined by James Maxwell and Peter Geoghegan.

First topic up was the by-election in Dunfermalino. Predictable result given the circumstances or should we be reading more into it? Why don’t the Greens do better?

The next topic was Grangemouth and this broadened into a larger discussion about nationalisation.

Finally, we got onto the definitions that are being used about what is happening in Scotland. Separation? Independence? Constitutional Change? Which of these, if any, really sums up what is going on?

Hope you enjoy…

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What’s At Stake?

In the last couple of years I have begun to notice the increasing use of the term “stakeholder” in corporate fluffy-speak.

The term was first used in 1963 and in case you are still unfamiliar with it, this definition is from businessdictionary.com

A person, group, or organization that has direct or indirect stake in an organization because it can affect or be affected by the organization’s actions, objectives, and policies. Key stakeholders in a business organization include creditors, customers, directors, employees, government (and its agencies), owners (shareholders), suppliers, unions, and the community from which the business draws its resources.

The usefulness of this word is that it allows certain companies to make you feel involved. You may well be outraged by the actions of a particular company but that very outrage makes you a stakeholder as you have been affected by the activity in question.
Talking of stakeholders instead of shareholders or investors also allows organisations to hide the fact that they are shafting people for money.

THE ACTIVE AND THE PASSIVE

In his piece of absolute f%&king genius Politics and the English Language, George Orwell suggested that we should always use the active instead of the passive in political writing.

Most of you will know that if you change a sentence from the active…

Shakespeare wrote Hamlet

to the passive…

Hamlet was written by Shakespeare

there is a resultant change in emphasis. In the first sentence the emphasis is on Shakespeare and in the second the emphasis is on Hamlet. We use the passive when to suggest it is not too important who did the action.

Another example could be that in the heat of the moment you might say…

Some pr*ck just stole my camera.

and then a few years later when you have calmed down about it you might say…

My camera was stolen by some pr*ck.

Why am I talking about this?

Because I have just seen this headline on the BBC site..

‘BALLS REJECTS SATS ACCUSATIONS’

and it suggests a huge number of possibilities [for those of you who don’t know that is Schools Secretary Ed Balls].

Just a comma and a capital can make a huge difference in meaning. Observe the difference between these two sentences.

1. Rejection of SATS accusations was balls

2. Rejection of SATS accusations was Balls’

Hey, I’m just playing with words here. The government wants us all to get onside and be part of the team.

In this article I am just playing the same game that New Labour have been playing for years. That game is in fact the reason that most people don’t even care if what they say/do is balls/Balls’ [or indeed Balls’ balls] or bullsh*t or true anymore.

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SEMANTICS

“Laws are like cobwebs, which may catch small flies, but let wasps and hornets break through.” –  Jonathan Swift

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Laws are written in such a way that the average person finds it very difficult to decipher them. This is not a technical necessity, it is a ploy. If the public do not understand their rights fully, how can they fight to defend them?

Ordinary people are forced to rely on a set of trained lawyers who are highly paid and for the most part unlikely to be in the position of having to defend themselves against the laws they interpret on behalf of their clients. In effect it is a cartel between lawyers and bureaucrats who draft and interpret the law in a way that guarantees that their services are always required. Unsurprisingly, this happy relationship tends to produce a situation where more and more power ends up in the hands of the bureaucrats and the lawyers. The establishment does not like people who defend themselves in court because it cuts out the trained middle-man and brings people closer to understanding their rights.

If the laws were written in clear and plain language the power of these groups would be drastically reduced.

The ‘Campaign for Plain English’ is “an independent pressure group fighting for public information to be written in plain English.” It has more than 10,000 registered supporters in 80 countries. It is not a plea for standardising English, far from it, “‘Plain English’ is language that the intended audience can understand and act upon from a single reading.”

Here are some quotes from their website that they have translated into simple English…

Before – High-quality learning environments are a necessary precondition for facilitation and enhancement of the ongoing learning process.

After – Children need good schools if they are to learn properly.

Before – If there are any points on which you require explanation or further particulars we shall be glad to furnish such additional details as may be required by telephone.

After – If you have any questions, please ring.

There is also this from the ‘Golden Bull’ award, which is given to the most baffling use of English that the campaign could find…

Australian Taxations Office for its Goods and Services legislation

‘For the purpose of making a declaration under this Subdivision, the Commissioner may:
a) treat a particular event that actually happened as not having happened; and
b) treat a particular event that did not actually happen as having happened and, if appropriate, treat the event as:

i) having happened at a particular time; and
ii) having involved particular action by a particular entity; and

c) treat a particular event that actually happened as:
i) having happened at a time different from the time it actually happened; or
ii) having involved particular action by a particular entity (whether or
not the event actually involved any action by that entity).’

As you can see from the before and after sections, there is no need for this sort of nonsense. If people understand their rights more then they can stand up for them in a much more effective way.

Sign up for the Campaign for Plain English here. You could also check out their Gobbledygook generator or look at the longest and clumsiest sentence they could find. I also think you might enjoy reading ‘Jack and Jill’ written as if drafted by a lawyer.

I can decipher legalese, but I learned more about the law from a couple of Bertolt Brecht lines than I did from a whole load of textbooks. Take this example from ‘The Threepenny Opera’ which is itself an update of John Gay’s ‘The Beggars Opera’ – both of which I cannot recommend highly enough.

Peachum – “the law was made for one thing alone, for the exploitation of those who don’t understand it, or are prevented by naked misery from obeying it. And anyone who wants a crumb of this exploitation for himself must obey the law strictly”

Brown – “I see, then you believe our judges are corruptible”

Peachum – “not at all, sir, not at all. our judges are absolutely incorruptible: its more than money can do to make them give a fair verdict.”

Please join the campaign. This is not something like a fussy schoolteacher correcting you on your grammar, this is about knowing what your rights are and then fighting to preserve them. If you don’t know you have something, you won’t notice when it is gone.