Gate: it’s a scandal

First there was Watergate. The scandal that eventually brought down American president Richard Nixon was named after the Watergate office building in Washington DC, the site of a burglary in 1972 linked to Nixon’s reelection campaign.

Since then, every scandal – or, in truth, concocted controversy – has had ‘gate’ as a suffix. Partygate – the scandal of illegal parties held at 10 Downing Street during lockdowns – is just the latest.

I’ve always found this a tiresome, lazy journalistic practice. So I was pleased today to see The Times agreeing with me. Rose Wild in her feedback column agreed with a reader, David Simpson, who pleaded with the paper to “stop writers putting ‘gate’ at the end of any scandal”.

Rose responded that The Times style guide discourages the practice as tired and lazy.

The only time I applauded the usage was when the Tory cabinet minister Andrew Mitchell was forced to resign after allegedly abusing police officers at the Downing Street gates in 2012. Gategate was a witty description – but the more common description was plebgate, after Mitchell was accused of calling the police plebs.

I hope Rose’s verdict holds, But I fear lazy journalists will still be calling scandals gates a century after Nixon resigned.

The Landsker line: Pembrokeshire’s language border

We’re on holiday in Tenby, Pembrokeshire this week. This intriguing town is called Dinbych-y-pysgod (little fort of the fishes) in Welsh. Yet Tenby has been an English speaking town for the best part of 900 years.

South Pembrokeshire: an English (language) landscape

Look at the map of South Pembrokeshire above. You might think you can’t learn anything about the state of the Welsh language in a region from a map. But think again. Look at the place names. They are all in English. There’s nowhere else in Wales that the landscape and place names are all in English.

North Pembrokeshire: a Welsh language landscape

Now look at the map above, showing Pembrokeshire place names just a few miles north of Tenby. All the names are in Welsh. The border between Welsh speaking and English speaking Pembrokeshire is often called the Landsker line. That name in itself echoes the history, as it comes from a Norse word meaning divide. South Pembrokeshire has often been called little England beyond Wales.

We’re looking at the impact of events 900 years ago. The Normans and Flemish conquered this part of Wales and unusually changed the language of the landscape as well as that spoken in the market place. By contrast, the Vale of Glamorgan west of Cardiff was similarly Anglicised but was later re-Cymricised.

Vale of Glamorgan: Cymraeg a Saesneg

Take this modern Ordnance Survey map of the Vale. Welsh was banished here many centuries ago as in South Pembrokeshire yet yr hen iaith was resurgent in the 18th century. As a result, the place names returned to the old Welsh versions. In time, however, especially in the 20th century, the tide turned once again, and the Vale became overwhelmingly an English speaking part of Wales. But intriguingly the names on the map largely remain the Welsh ones.

Welshness is not just defined by the language spoken. Tenby is a very Welsh town, regardless of the language spoken on the streets by locals and visitors. At my mother’s funeral in 2018 I talked about the old saying that the dragon has two tongues. in other words, Wales isn’t solely defined by language. Our country has made enormous strides over the past 60 years to restore the status of our ancient language. Whether you recognise Tenby or Dinbych-y-pysgod, you have equal status as a Welsh person. Cymru am byth.

Stephen Waddington on business jargon

The British are famous for being hopeless at languages. Yet when they get to work they start speaking another language. Unfortunately that language is business-speak. Former president of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations Stephen Waddington has blogged a list of the worst examples of business gobbledegook.

Stephen gathered the list after asking his Facebook friends for contributions. I happily contributed ‘visibility’ – a fine word in a weather forecast but nonsense when used as a synonym for information. (“I don’t have visibility on this” means “I don’t know” in the English language.) He could have filled a book rather than a blogpost: companies and other organisations create bullshit phrases on an industrial scale.

Business speak gets in the way of communication. It deadens the senses. And it prompts clever and sensible people to suspend their ability to think what they are trying to say and use the right words to communicate a thought. You’d be ridiculed if you talked to your friends like this. So why inflict it on the people you work with?

Let’s reach out to each other to create visibility about a roadmap to axe gobbledegook going forwards…

PS: it may be unfair to point this out, as Stephen is one of Britain’s finest communicators, but his job title is itself an example of business bullshit. ‘Chief Engagement Officer’ sounds like someone very important at a dating agency. 

This post comprises a pedant and me

Bryan Henderson is famous – as a pedant. The world’s media put him under the spotlight last week for correcting the same error 47,000 times in Wikipedia. He hates the phrase ‘comprised of’ – arguing the ‘of’ is unnecessary. The story took me back to my days reading Ernest Gowers’ The Complete Plain Words in university in 1984: it was one of the phrases Gowers singled out as a howler.

I’ve never edited a single Wikipedia entry. But I felt a tremble of recognition when I read of Henderson’s obsession. As I get older, I get more irritated by language (and number) howlers. Here are some of my pet hates.

Language inflation. Build out; test out; off of. Just a few phrases that have suffered parasitic appendages.

Doppelgängers: words that have been replaced by identical sounding cousins: it’s/its; your/you’re; there/their/they’re. Years ago, it’s/its was the most common error, but your/you’re seems just as common now:  ‘Your welcome’…

Talking telephone numbers: companies that spend money on beautiful shop fronts and signs, but don’t know that the area phone code for London is 020 and Cardiff is 029. I’ve lost count of signs giving numbers starting 0207, 0208 and 02920.

No such code as 0207

Don’t try dialling 724 0055 

This Marylebone shop can’t get its own number right. Anyone dialling 724 0055 will get an unobtainable tone. The 7 in 0207 is actually part of the number, not the area code.

Does it matter? No, not compared with life’s real horrors. But accuracy does matter. Hats off to Bryan Henderson. Or hat’s off as some would say….

The return of the artisan

Around the time that Margaret Thatcher came to power, I learned a new word: artisan. My Cardiff High School history teacher, the excellent Dr Davies, explained that an artisan was a skilled manual worker. The question was prompted by Dr Davies’s lesson on the  reforms of Benjamin Disraeli’s first ministry, including the Artisans’ Dwellings Act 1875.

Little did I imagine back in 1979 that the word would become a marketing buzzword in the 21st century. Yet it has, as Kathryn Hughes examines in her column in today’s Guardian. As she puts it:

“The implication is that everything in these charming, gentle spaces has been done by hand, from scratch and on the premises. The coffee beans are ground to order, the soup was simmered in a battered old saucepan, and the cakes were made overnight in the basement kitchen. The interior design too hints towards “artisanal” without quite spelling it out. There are old refectory tables, chairs from an abandoned cricket pavilion and some mismatched crockery that came from someone’s granny.”

She draws parallels with William Morris’s arts and crafts movement of the 1870s (by coincidence the decade of that famous act of parliament). Morris was keen to improve the lives of workers. Yet few of those workers could afford the hand made furniture inspired by the movement. In much the same way, the new generation of artisanal products and shops carry a steep price tag.

I wonder if the coffee tastes better?

Visibility: I see a buzzword

Visibility: not what it used to be

Visibility: not what it used to be

Once upon a time, if people didn’t know the answer to a question, they’d say they didn’t know the answer. Now, if they work in a big organisation, they’re just as likely to say, “I don’t have visibility about that.” They’ll say they’re sending an email so the recipient “has visibility”.

I first heard visibility used in this way in Rebekah Brooks’ evidence to the House of Commons media select committee hearing into the News of the World phone hacking scandal in 2011:

“One of the problems of this case has been our lack of visibility and what was seized at Glenn Mulcaire’s home. We have had zero visibility.”

Where did this nonsense come from? I have no idea, but I’m sure it follows the belief that jargon and buzzwords are more impressive than plain English. The truth is the opposite. Language like this deadens the senses. People use it without thinking.

Here’s my earlier post about jargon and buzz phrases. Sadly, ‘roadmap’ and ‘granularity’ remain as common in office language today as two years ago.

You guys – the greeting that grates

Call me old fashioned if you like. But I hate the expression ‘you guys’.

I’m not sure why I dislike it so intensely. It may be because it seems vulgar – I’m not impressed when restaurant staff use it. (I certainly don’t want to be called sir, but ‘you guys’ seems crass and discourteous.) Or it may be because referring to women as guys seems a bizarre and backward development after women spent decades rebelling against the idea that references to men should be taken to include women. (A bit like the infamous 19th century book whose index said ‘for Wales see England’.)

I’m not alone – the Guardian has published a series of letters this week from readers rebelling against ‘you guys’. My favourite was the following:

Can I propose a new year’s resolution that the expression “guys” be banned unless one is actually named Guy.
Guy Sowerby
Bingham, Nottingham

I await a deluge of comments from women saying they’re perfectly happy with the phrase!

When cappuccino was called frothy coffee

Today’s Guardian carried a lighthearted editorial ‘In praise of … a simple coffee’. It praises Debenhams’ plain English coffee menu. Goodbye to latte, hello milky coffee.

The story made me think back to coffee time with Mum in 1970s Cardiff. South Wales has long been associated with Italian cafes: a legacy of the arrival of scores of people from Italy during the 19th century boom years. Mum and I used to go to Ferrari’s on Wellfield Road near Roath Park. I’d enjoy a frothy coffee after visiting the toy and book shops on Albany Road, or the library.

Years later, I discovered cappuccino. It took a while before I realised that it was exactly the same drink. But usually a lot more expensive – with the honourable exception of the 50p takeaway latte I bought in Giraffe in Richmond this morning!

In praise of Great Britain and London 2012

Great Britain: our country. Our greatest team.

Tonight marks the end of the greatest show on earth, the London 2012 Olympics. (Roll on the Paralympics!) It’s been a triumph for Great Britain as both host and the third most successful team.

I’ve loved the fact we’ve competed as Great Britain. I wrote during the Beijing Olympics how Great Britain is a far more resonant title for our country than United Kingdom. It’s small wonder that Churchill immortalised Britain in describing our battle for survival in 1940 as the Battle of Britain. He was proud to describe himself as Great Britain’s prime minister. ‘United Kingdom’ carries no such emotional weight. It simply refers to our country’s constitutional status. No one would die in a ditch for the ‘Youkay’. (Britain’s national anthem leaves me equally cold, given it’s all about the head of state not the country. I remain unmoved by the song even after 29 plays…)

(PS: Before anyone comments, I do know the difference between Great Britain and the UK. Perhaps some loyalists in Northern Ireland feel aggrieved that the media never use the Olympic team’s full title of ‘Great Britain and Northern Ireland’.)

Deckchairs on the Titanic

‘Deckchairs on the Titanic’ is one of those clichés banned by John Rentoul in his Banned List book. So I should be wary about using it in a post, after praising John’s campaign for plain and fresh English.

But I’m prompted by a letter in today’s Guardian from Colin Shone reporting a promotion for Wrexham Lager ‘as served on the Titanic’. Is there an opportunity here for deckchair makers?