Terminological diversions

After seeing some excruciatingly obtuse jargon on Twitter today [1,2], I was reminded of Winston Churchill and his lifelong love of words, as well as being a fount of delicious anecdotes and epigrams. There is a story that an American general once asked Churchill to look over the draft of an address he had written. It was returned with the comment: “Too many passives and too many zeds“. The general asked him what he meant, and was told:

Too many Latinate polysyllabics like “systematize”, “prioritize” and “finalize”. And then the passives. What if I had said, instead of “We shall fight on the beaches”, “Hostilities will be engaged with our adversary on the coastal perimeter”?

(aside: this is of particular relevance, as many scientists (myself included!) are guilty of using unnecessarily baffling terminology and phrasing when writing papers; I highly recommend a presentation by Simon Peyton Jones from Microsoft Research Cambridge on How to write a good research paper)

Churchill’s ability with words was not only employed in his speeches, but also in his impish (indeed, often childish) sense of humour. He could not resist making a quip — to the extent that over the years many witty remarks whose provenance is in fact far from certain have been ascribed to him. A further example that I have always appreciated is given in one of the many documents that came across Churchill’s desk; a civil servant has gone out of his way to be grammatically correct, and had clumsily avoided ending a sentence with a preposition. Churchill scribbled in the margin: “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.

Churchill was also the progenitor of the delightful phrase terminological inexactitude, used as a euphemism meaning a lie or untruth (referring to the government’s denials in 1906 of the exploitation of Chinese labour in South Africa).

Winston Churchill
“Men will forgive a man anything except bad prose.”

(many of these quotes have been taken from the excellent The Wicked Wit of Winston Churchill, compiled by Dominique Enright)

3 thoughts

  1. I think it was Churchill who said, “You have achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

  2. It’s a truly painful job, minimising jargon in a scientific paper. A ‘biogeochemist’ or ‘neuropsychopharmacologist’ has little hope of using simple language.

    One of my fellow biogeochemists gave up and summarised his work as “playing with mud” to anyone he met. I tried the same approach and it triggered lots more discussions about what I ‘really’ did than a more technical description. Unfortunately, I started working with human waste toxicity after that, and it’s hard to use a plain language explanation without putting people off their food.

    “I’m working on my chartered accountancy right now. How about you?”

    “Oh, I mix poo with cyanide. Fancy a meatball?”

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