ACRONYMS – ALL IN THE LINE OF DUTY

There are several articles on jargon elsewhere on this site, and in 2018 I wrote about the proliferation of acronyms and their effect on listeners and readers too (that article is here*). Now in 2021 the cult ‘appointment television’ crime series Line of Duty has reignited debate on the status of codes and abbreviations as a mainstay of officialese and the private, exclusive languages that both fascinate and intimidate the public. The long-running hit police drama The Bill is due to return to screens very soon, no doubt introducing civilians to some updated terminology and slang of its own.

In March I spoke to Amit Katwala, who was researching this topic for Wired magazine, and the resulting article is here, followed for any students, teachers – and fans of Line of Duty – by a list of links to sources of both real-life and fictional acronyms and discussion of them…

https://www.wired.co.uk/article/line-of-duty-police-jargon

ACTUAL (2019)

https://www.plymouthherald.co.uk/news/plymouth-news/guide-to-police-slang-codewords-2074442

OLD-FASHIONED (THE BILL)

https://thebill.fandom.com/wiki/Police_lingo

ANECDOTAL, FROM THE 90S

http://www.f.waseda.jp/buda/library/seabrook.html

LINE OF DUTY 2021

https://www.radiotimes.com/tv/drama/line-of-duty-acronyms-abbreviations-guide/

THE MET’S OFFICIAL JARGON GUIDE

https://www.met.police.uk/foi-ai/af/accessing-information/met/glossary/

CAMBRIDGESHIRE POLICE’S VERSION

https://www.cambs.police.uk/information-and-services/About-us/Jargon

While the Sun satirises them, the Guardian has perceptively gone beyond the linguistic challenges and plot contortions in Line of Duty and detected underlying references to current political realities…

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/apr/16/the-guardian-view-on-line-of-duty-more-about-our-politics-than-our-policing

*https://language-and-innovation.com/2018/10/15/at-war-with-acronyms-tmi-via-tla/

ALL THE YOUNG DUDES: CAN KIDS SAFELY LEARN…SLANG??

I have been trying to tell the world for a long time that slang is a rich, creative and complex feature of language, and one which has great social and cultural significance. I have argued (again and again) against those who want to ban or censor it and have advocated instead teaching young people about it so that they can judge for themselves its qualities and refine their own usage of it where necessary. What I have hesitated to do is to actually ‘teach slang’ to younger learners, knowing that it is still a controversial (linguists use terms like ‘stigmatised’ and ‘transgressive’) variety which makes many parents, teachers and authority figures uncomfortable. Connie Chang, writing for the National Geographic asked me whether it could ever be possible to teach slang to younger children without risk. In her published article, quoting experts in the field, she describes some interesting developments which suggest a positive answer.

Here is Connie’s article, followed by some further thoughts and some links which illustrate and explore the issues raised. I hope these, along with other articles on this site (put ‘slang‘, ‘MLE‘, ‘youth language‘ into the search box or check the tags at the foot of the page) will help students and teachers, and language-buffs, too, who are ready to explore the language ecosystem in which slang flourishes and operates…

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/family/article/dude-your-kids-slang-isnt-as-bad-as-you-think

Teen Slang: The Complete Parent's Guide + Infographic | by Netsanity

Experimenting with language and inventing new language begins naturally in children as soon as they move from making noises to uttering more complex sounds. The creation by babies of seemingly meaningful sound combinations and, soon after, approximations of words is known as jargoning. Toddlers will make up words, participate in babytalk and banter and soon join their older siblings and other family members in inventing nicknames for objects in the home – part of the private domestic language known as familect. As young people encounter new experiences in growing up – dating, grappling with parents and teachers, following fashions and admiring celebrities, and experiment with new behaviour – they often feel they need a new language to describe these things and to convey the novel and intense feelings they have. Adults don’t have a vocabulary for ‘jumping up and grabbing someone’s sweater from behind’, (‘glomping’) or ‘coolest boy in the class’, (‘peng-ting’) so kids need to create their own. Young people also don’t want adults to know what they are up to or what they are feeling, hence the online and messaging codes and abbreviations (‘POS’ for ‘parent over shoulder’, ‘FOMO’ for fear of missing out) and the new, exotic and, for parents and teachers, impenetrable language. In the UK and the US there have been many not-entirely-serious guides for parents to help them…

https://www.dove.com/uk/dove-self-esteem-project/help-for-parents/family-friends-and-relationships/a-guide-to-understanding-teenage-language.html

Slang’s power and resonance is that it’s an alternative, subversive language and that for people who don’t understand it, slang can make them uncomfortable and can feel like a violation of social norms. The 19th century US author Ambrose Bierce defined slang in his Devil’s Dictionary as follows: ‘The grunt of the human hog (Pignoramus intolerabilis) with an audible memory. The speech of one who utters with his tongue what he thinks with his ear, and feels the pride of a creator in accomplishing the feat of a parrot. A means (under Providence) of setting up as a wit without a capital of sense.’  He may have been being ironic but this was certainly the view of many at that time, witness this report of a Victorian lecture…

Strong disapproval of slang continues in the 21st century. Some years ago I debated with Lindsey Johns, at that time campaigning publicly against those like me who he accused of promoting ‘ghetto grammar’ in the UK…

https://www.standard.co.uk/hp/front/ghetto-grammar-robs-the-young-of-a-proper-voice-6433284.html

In the US linguistic conservatism takes many forms…

https://www.eater.com/2014/11/11/7193179/chick-fil-a-manager-bans-unprofessional-teen-slang

Not all recent commentaries are condemnations: here, an interesting take on the significance of slang for young speakers with autism…

https://jtrebat.wordpress.com/2012/05/07/teaching-slang-and-idioms/

A DUCHESS SPEAKS …and endures trial by tabloid

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle Open Up In Oprah Interview – Live – Deadline

It is sometimes hard to observe the impartiality required of someone who poses as an expert in one or other field. For me it has been particularly difficult to embrace – or to feign – objectivity in trying to record and analyse the language controversies of the last two years. Tracking the rancorous, divisive language of the campaign for Brexit, the gaslighting and firehosing indulged in by Donald Trump’s media supporters and, more recently still, the mixed messaging, pivoting and bamboozling (to use the kindest words I can think of ) accompanying the UK government’s managing of the pandemic, has sorely tested the fraying, threadbare notion of even-handedness (itself unsurprisingly mocked these days as ‘both-sidesism’ or ‘whataboutery’).

In fact, of course, anyone reading my posts (elsewhere on this site) on the toxic terminology of populism and the ‘coronaspeak’ generated by the virus will quickly see that I have fallen short, on many occasions allowing my impatience and disapproval to show through a veneer of scholarly restraint.

I did not even want to engage with the latest controversy to erupt into the UK’s national conversation. I am, at a considerable distance, not in favour of hereditary monarchies. I try never to read the press reports of the behaviour of royal family members, and, above all, never to be tempted to comment, however flagrant the untruths being traded by politicians or the unfairness of the campaigns mounted by the tabloids or the expressions of envy, spite and malice by ‘royal correspondents’ and the population at large.

Meghan Markle, 39, 'was not coached' for her bombshell Oprah Winfrey interview and instead 'spoke from the heart', a language expert has revealed

In any case, who am I to pronounce on such subjects? An obscure lexicographer and sometime teacher of languages, a very long way down the lines of succession and without a constituency or a following. Nevertheless, among the invariably hostile treatments of some of the younger royals, I could not help noticing some which seem to be based on linguistic discriminations, language-based prejudices and false assumptions about how language works. Thus it was (horrible expression, I apologise) that I agreed to talk to Bridie Pearson-Brown of the Daily Mail about this week’s ‘bombshell interview’ between Oprah Winfrey and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, hoping I admit, not just to offer some objective comments, but perhaps to redress the balance of ‘analysis’ in the poor Duchess’s favour.

Here is the article in question, which appeared halfway down a front page containing several dozen articles focusing on the same celebrity, most of them – no, I think all of them – overtly or implicitly hostile.

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-9337603/Meghan-spoke-heart-words-werent-rehearsed.html?ito=social-twitter_mailonline

This wasn’t in fact the first time I had commented on Meghan Markle’s way of speaking. Last time, too, I tried to counter the xenophobic assumptions and the ‘misogynoir’ sneering, the framing of her coming to terms with her changing linguistic surroundings as something insincere or evidence of bad faith. That article, from May 2020, is here. Its precepts still stand…although predictably Prince Harry was yesterday accused of ‘sounding American’ (the expert ‘analysis’ of his intonation and word-choices was wrong: he simply softened a couple of British consonants in accommodating Oprah)…

Why Meghan sounds American again: Linguistic expert reveals Duchess of Sussex has her native accent back as she’s no longer displaying ‘linguistic accommodation’

By Bridie Pearson-Jones for MailOnline 

Archie and Meghan reading the book in the video shared on Instagram

Meghan Markle’s accent has returned to her natural Californian as she is ‘relaxed’ and is no longer displaying ‘linguistic accommodation’, an expert revealed. 

Speaking to Femail, Tony Thorne, a language consultant at King’s College, London explained:  ‘There’s a thing called  linguistic accommodation where you change the way you talk to fit in with the people around you.

‘This is very very common even within the UK, if you’re speaking to a Geordie, someone from Liverpool or an Australian you begin to very slightly change your accent to become closer to them.’ 

During Meghan’s time in the UK, fans noted that her accent appeared to becoming more British as she spent more time in the country. 

Viewers said Meghan Markle sounded British in a 2018 ITV documentary, Queen of Her World, where she appeared to reunite with her wedding dress 

Tony continued: ‘For most people if they’re authentic and sincere they will keep their basic accent with slight changes. I’ve seen friends from London move to Newcastle – and you’ll start to hear bits of comments of the local accent.

‘It might take a normal person six months or a year for their accent to change, but when you’re a celebrity and have to be on show and are super self-conscious about image it will happen faster. I don’t think its surprising that it would be a more conscious choice for someone like Meghan, as she’s tries to project herself in a way that will fit in with environment.’

Tony, who knew Princess Diana ‘slightly’, added that he doesn’t imagine Prince Harry’s accent will become American despite the move to California – but the current generation of royals have eased their accents to sound more like a common Brit. 

‘The British ruling classes are very attached, so I can’t imagine Meghan’s husband sounding American,’ he said. That said, since Princess Diana joined the family, the royals have modified their natural accent to sound less posh. 

‘I was very conscious when she changed her accent, then William and Harry did too. They use the ‘non-posh’ glottal stop – so they pronounce words like ‘bottle’ as ‘bot-al’  to sounds less like the extreme British upper class. This is why the young royals sound very different to the Queen or Prince Philip. 

‘Now Meghan is back in California, she’s reverting to her natural accent. It maybe not the same as her parents or what she had as a young girl – but it’s a glamorous, educated, prestigious Californian accent which is, much more relaxed than a British accent or even an American east coast accent. 

‘Nobody can tell if she’s made a conscious decision to change her voice, but she’s very bright and aware and under intense scrutiny so I think  it would be understandable if she did.’ 

‘WOKE’ NOT WOKE

activism, slang and politics collide, and a slur goes viral

The Woke and the Un-Woke - Tablet Magazine

UK feature-writer Sirin Kale took to Twitter last week to voice a complaint heard often recently, particularly from the ‘left’ and ‘centre-left’: ‘I would really like it if people stopped using “anti-woke” and “woke” as lazy journalistic descriptors when they can’t be bothered to actually spell out what a person’s views are. Say what they believe and the reader can decide for ourselves what we think of it.’ In the ensuing conversation @yoyomorena was blunt: ‘The sooner we can understand ‘woke’ as the anti-black, racist code it has become, the sooner we can get back to normal lives.’ Yesterday, on the same platform, a query by Tom Whyman pointed up the way a once-proud self-ascription by the socially aware had fully transited to become the go-to pejorative for conservative journalists and politicians, fighting back, as they see it, against an array of enemies: ‘Is it me or have the right wing press in the past few weeks started using the word ‘woke’ as if it refers to an organised political tendency, as opposed to just a loosely arranged constellation of things they don’t like?’ As if to furnish instant corroboration a Telegraph headline of the same date announced…

Image result for Citizens advice service' launches to help employees in woke

Citizens advice service’ launches to help employees in woke workplaces

The organisation will provide help to ‘casualties of the culture wars’

London journalist Kate Ng had asked me about the same red-flag-buzzword last week and her subsequent piece in the Independent is here…

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/woke-meaning-word-history-b1790787.html

As it has morphed from positive to negative in its connotations, (by 2019 Urban Dictionary‘s top definitions were emphatically negative: ‘The act of being very pretentious about how much you care about a social issue’ and ‘Deluded or fake awareness’) woke has spawned elaborations along the way: woke-washing, by analogy with whitewashing and greenwashing, was coined to describe brands attempting to use, or at least proclaim, a concern for social justice as a marketing strategy; wokerati, woke-worthies and woke warriors dismiss critics of white privilege and social inequality, while Wokeahontas was invented in the US to define and mock a female enthusiast for native American rights.

The question that Kate and I had discussed briefly has not, I think, been raised before: must the victims of sneering and jeering by powerful opponents abandon their identity label, attempt somehow to reclaim it, or find a substitute for it? I canvassed an assortment of people, most of them it must be said not identifying as conservatives, on possible candidates to replace ‘woke’. Nobody suggested the words that progressives of my own generation once embraced; ‘radical’ or ‘liberationist’, but this is no surprise. The first now sounds ambiguous while the second was appropriated by neocons and conservatives in the US more than a decade ago. No real workable favourites emerged and no consensus was reached, but the formulations we considered are gathered in this wordcloud for what it’s worth…

An earlier article in the Guardian traces in some detail the trajectory that ‘woke’ has undergone, with useful comments on the controversies accompanying its mutation…

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/nov/21/how-woke-became-the-word-of-our-era

Why Any Literate Person Should Never Use the Word 'Woke' Ungrammatically -  Daily Squib

In March, after two months of articles in the conservative press excoriating the ‘woke agenda’ and its followers, came news, via the Sun, that steps were being taken to curb the influence of leftwing comedy…

https://www.thesun.co.uk/tv/14311062/bbc-tim-davie-axes-nish-kumar-the-mash-report/

In April Clyde McGrady wrote in The Washington Post about the parallel history of ‘cancel’, conservative America’s scare-word of choice…

And in the Guardian Evan Smith suggested that the UK right’s ‘war on woke’ is nothing new…

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/apr/21/conservatives-war-on-woke-loony-left-political-correctness?CMP=fb_cif

Finally, in late April, I came across a Twitter thread by Joshua Adams which sets out perceptively and pithily the links between the word’s transitions and Black responses to it…

JOSHUA@JournoJoshua Hope folks realize that a part of the reason the Right pounced on “woke” and now use it as a meaningless catch-all pejorative is because folks on the Left stripped it from its context in the Black experience, and made it mean “excessive social awareness.” It didn’t mean that.

LAST WORDS (ON 2020)?

The annual end-of-year competition by publishers, lexicographers and linguists to nominate a Word Of The Year, thereby excite debate and, just perhaps, sell some dictionaries into an exhausted and impoverished marketplace took on a new poignancy, if that’s the right word, in 2020. The usual pontificators and publicists set out their selections from among the cloud of neologisms and repurposings generated by COVID, Brexit and BLM. Oxford Dictionaries broke with tradition, having listed their contenders, to announce that no single term could do justice to the year – a sentiment I very much agree with.

The same roundup of 2020’s language novelties was taking place in other places. Here’s my friend Licia Corbolante‘s Italian perspective…

word cloud 2020

Elsewhere on this site are my own successive reports on #coronaspeak as it has developed and mutated since February. Some of my examples (in fact rather a lot of my examples) were featured in a late piece in the Independent

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/coronavirus-glossary-covid-terms-dictionary-2020-b1766827.html

For francophone friends here is a French perspective on the unprecedented conjunction of Brexit and COVID facing the UK. In it my collaborator RTL/RF1 correspondent Marie Billon also comments on Word Of The Year with a momentary intervention by me…

https://www.rfi.fr/fr/podcasts/accents-d-europe/20201216-brexit-les-entreprises-et-les-expatri%C3%A9s-inquiets-face-aux-incertitudes?ref=tw

Much as I appreciate Licia’s and the Independent’s wordclouds, in signing off I couldn’t do better than gratefully reproduce the Guardian’s version, featuring the terms chosen by its readers to epitomise this plague year…

Word of the year poll: Guardian readers describe 2020 as 'shit' | Australia  news | The Guardian

…oh, and by the way, my word of the year, for what it’s worth, is vaccine.

On the last day of the year (and, though few have noticed, of the decade) I was given, by Euronews TV‘s Good Morning Europe programme one more chance to pontificate on the subject…

https://www.euronews.com/2020/12/31/lockdown-social-distancing-quarantini-dissecting-the-2020-pandemic-lingo

(the video link in the article is hard to find. It’s here: https://www.euronews.com/video/2020/12/31/lockdown-social-distancing-quarantini-dissecting-the-2020-pandemic-lingo)

GANGS, SLANGS – AND DRILL

An update on the unusual role of an ‘expert linguist witness’

UK gang members | Gang member, Gang crime, Gang culture

Elsewhere on this site I have written about the ‘street slang‘ used by gang members and other young people in the UK, a variety of language also featuring in the lyrics of Drill and other rap music genres. In October 2020 I was invited by the Aston Institute for Forensic Linguistics to talk about my role in translating and commenting on this language in the context of criminal investigations and trials.

My contribution to this event, with those of other specialists, together with some answers to follow-up questions from the virtual audience can be accessed here…

https://www2.aston.ac.uk/lss/research/lss-research/forensic-linguistics/research-seminars/new-urban-varieties

Trapped in the Gangs Matrix | Amnesty International UK

The prosecution of actual or supposed gang members, many of whom are from disadvantaged backgrounds and are victims themselves of coercion, trafficking, even modern slavery, is hugely controversial, as are attempts by some law enforcers to criminalise Drill music, its performers and its enthusiasts and the language that it uses.*

Rap lyrics appear to be poetic or literary texts, and may be fictional, but many professional rappers and their amateur imitators routinely mix creative fiction conventions, metaphors and imagery with real-life facts, introducing real names and references to real places, incidents and actions for ‘authenticity’ and effect. They also frequently borrow or steal images, words and whole sequences from other rappers, and impersonate actors in the real world such as killers or drug dealers who they have learned about from media reports or by word of mouth on the street.

Even more confusingly, many young rap enthusiasts nowadays use the language of rap and its lyrical conventions when they are communicating in quite different contexts. I have encountered many examples of messages between friends, entries in journals or prison notebooks, editing an online persona for chatting in forums, etc. that use words, phrases and references familiar from lyrics as used in audio/video music performances.

There are now academics and activists seeking to question official attitudes to the policing of youth crime and to question the validity of presenting rap or rap-related lyrics as evidence of wrongdoing.* There are also currently many agencies, charities and other stakeholders working with young victims, young perpetrators and their families and friends in order to analyse, publicise and seek solutions for the social stresses that foster gang culture. For my small part, I’m concerned, though, that these efforts, even the well organised periodic campaigns by police to control and reduce ‘knife crime,’ are still piecemeal and only partially coordinated across the country.

Trapped in the Gangs Matrix | Amnesty International UK

In November I talked on the same subject at Warwick University‘s Applied Linguistics Seminar…

One month on, and a small sign that mainstream media may be paying a little more attention to gang realities…

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/amp/newsbeat-55302854?__twitter_impression=true

*In May 2021 many of these issues were summarised in a post by Keir Monteith QC…

https://www.gardencourtchambers.co.uk/news/rap-and-the-states-double-whammy-lack-of-expert-challenge-to-racist-stereotyping

Finally, Krept and Konan’s 2019 commentary on the driller’s culture and attempts to ban drill lyrics. Essential reading/listening for anyone struggling to untangle the unresolved complexities of the issue…

https://beelyrics.net/music/12136-krept-konan/4628167-ban-drill-lyrics.html

WE CAN BE HEROES

Medieval Female Scribe - Archaeology Magazine

In 1821 the poet Shelley claimed that poets were – are – ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’ I would not for a moment dispute that, but would add others to the list of unsung heroes, essential to our cultural wellbeing but toiling in obscurity and anonymity. Lexicographers, despite Dr Johnson‘s dismissal of us as ‘harmless drudges’, translators, interpreters, editors all deserve the gratitude of everyone who reads, perhaps even deserve a metaphorical moment in the sun.

I was given another chance to venture into the late summer sunshine by translation specialist and editor Isabella Massardo who asked me about life as a drudge and about other topical issues...

I was also interviewed by Marie Billon, UK correspondent for RTL and RFI, about the latest British ‘portmanteau’ acronyms and jargon, now attempting to describe the co-occurrence of the pandemic and the final stages of the Brexit process (my contribution, partly in rusty French, is at 14 minutes in)…

https://www.rfi.fr/fr/podcasts/20200916-covid-19-comment-%C3%A9viter-la-deuxi%C3%A8me-vague

There are other hitherto little-known or unknown linguists – teachers, students, language enthusiasts among them – who also deserve our attention. One such, Sameer Merali, interviewed another such – Zobia, a real life user of youth slang – and me for his SLANGuage podcast series…

Mind your language: Here's how you can stop being basic and learn Gen Z  slang for a lit experience - art and culture - Hindustan Times

In October I took part in a debate on current language issues, hosted by Cumberland House. The discussion ranged across the language of ethnicity, diversity and inclusion, the language of youth and the notion of ‘political correctness’ and the policing of comedy and creativity…

https://www.cumberlandlodge.ac.uk/read-watch-listen/dialogue-debate-mind-your-language?fbclid=IwAR2A0_WH6AU3SVNvUjDqqhwZYs2ytYnUVvZ-vSG7yuwK6sLqLGRhg9Q6HFA

To return to the poor lexicographer’s standing, or lack of it, an eminent practitioner of the craft, Jeremy Butterfield, sent this resonant quote on the subject…

“Dictionary-making, while it obviously demands high scholarly qualifications, is commonly regarded as the graveyard of academic careers, and it is precisely those who have what it takes to whom we would be most loath to commend such an undertaking.” – Prof. W. Atkinson (1902-1992), Glasgow University 1961

#CORONASPEAK 3 – the mixed messages

A role for linguists in coronamessaging?

Jon Birch, channelling Turing and repurposing the Enigma machine

The UK government’s handling of the information transfer required in a national emergency has differed significantly from the strategies employed in other states. While Donald Trump has used the White House ‘pressers’ to expound a bewildering sequence of personal claims, accusations and commentaries, and Angela Merkel has favoured occasional official announcements via mainstream and social media, the government at Westminster has relied on daily televised briefings to keep the public informed of progress in combatting the pandemic and to advise on regulations and desirable behaviour.

After more than two months there has been a chance to reflect on the official recommendations and diktats and to assess their consistence and credibility. It is not clear exactly who is responsible for the drafting of messages or the invention of rallying cries and slogans. The ‘comms’ (communications, including information dissemination and public relations) team probably consists of activists involved in the Brexit Vote Leave campaign, ‘spads’ (unelected special advisors to ministers and the cabinet), spin-doctors and civil service speechwriters from relevant departments, (oversight by the GCS  – Government Communication Service – is unconfirmed) *. With an admixture of improvisations by the prime minister and cabinet members, the UK comms have been, in the view of many, a disaster.**

The details, including key statistics, have changed and mutated (at the end of June the two-metre social distancing rule was replaced by Boris Johnson’s advice to switch to ‘one metre plus’), the tactical positions adopted have pivoted and stalled, the advice has often  been bewildering or contradictory. Underlying themes may have shown more consistency, but consistency can describe a dependency on metaphors which may be unhelpful or confusing – above all the reframing of attempts to contain and overcome the virus as a ‘war’, with ‘heroes’, ‘non-combatants’ and hapless, tragic victims*** – the virus itself personified as an ‘invisible mugger’ who can be ‘wrestled to the floor’ by ‘have a go’ heroism.

With no other way of influencing events experts and non-specialists have taken to social media to critique and mock the successive claims. Professor Elena Semino declared herself ‘puzzled that the UK Prime Minister keeps referring to his government’s covid-related policies as ‘putting our arms around the public’, adding ‘Embodied simulation would be uncomfortable at the best of times, but now?!?’ Manchester Professor of Government Colin Talbot countered a succession of official claims on Twitter:

We need more testing. We’ll do 100,000 tests a day. ◼️You’re failing to do that. We’ll do 200,000 tests a day. ◼️We need to track and trace. We’ll have an app to do that. ◼️It not working We’ll set up a service to do that ◼️You haven’t

We’ll set up a world beating…

It is not only the verbal cues and rhetorical devices that have been deployed to manipulate, to confuse and to evade, but the visual signals, displays and symbology used, consciously or not, to influence and convince.****

 – Alex Andreou, on the ‘Stay Alert’ slogan

 

In a short interview last week I offered my own take on the evolution of covid-related language (as detailed in my two previous posts on this site) and a duty for linguists to become involved in scrutinising, clarifying and where necessary criticising the content of the present infodemic…

https://www.kcl.ac.uk/news/spotlight/spotlight-on-covid-pandemic-language-and-the-role-of-linguists

As was the case in the national conversation on Brexit the transmission and reception of official messages has been complicated by the role of some MSM (mainstream media) representatives, derided by their critics as ‘client journalists’, ‘courtier journalists’ and ‘stenographers’, in uncritically passing on information, seeming actively to endorse or promote the government line and failing to hold obfuscators or outright liars to account. This will be the subject of an upcoming article on this site.

* More on this, from a partisan viewpoint, here…

https://www.politico.eu/article/boris-johnsons-coronavirus-fudge/

** Doubts were being expressed from the outset…

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/mar/16/johnson-daily-briefings-matt-hancock-herd-immunity

*** linguists, among them my colleagues at King’s College London, have now begun to analyse the deeper implications of the figurative language employed in official discourse. I will be posting their findings once they become available. Here is one such report, from an Australian perspective…

Metaphorical militarisation: Covid-19 and the language of war

**** a commentary here on semiology, slogans and signage…

Order out of chaos: Covid-19 threat levels and the manufacture of competence

In June The Conversation published an interesting comparison of the effects of fake news and mixed messages…

https://theconversation.com/coronavirus-fake-news-less-of-a-problem-than-confusing-government-messages-new-study-140383

And it is not only in the UK that members of the public feel confused by official messages and advice, as this article from Vice confirms…

https://www.vice.com/en_uk/article/3azdqv/coronavirus-safety-guidelines-changing-confusing-united-states?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter

A  perhaps minor example of injudicious choice of words, and conflicting nuances of meaning and connotation, in July 2020. The bilateral travel agreements between states opening borders after lockdown were described by the UK government as air bridges. This term had until now more usually referred to a covered passage by which travellers can pass from an airport building to an aircraft.  In more difficult times it had denoted a connection by air between locations divided by sea or by foreign occupation. It is just possible, too, that the phrase might prompt memories of the very expensive, ultimately abandoned ‘garden bridge’ proposed by PM Boris Johnson for the Thames in London, or even the fantasies alluded to by ‘castles in the air’. In the event two different lists of permitted connections were published by the government leading to angry confusion on the part of travellers, airlines and the tourist industry. Led I think by the Foreign Office, from July 3rd official messaging quietly began to substitute the more literal designation international travel corridors.

On July 13 the government launched a new publicity campaign designed to inform businesses and the public on how travel will change after Brexit. Their latest gnomic slogan ‘Check, Change, Go’ and jargon formulations such as ‘field force team’ (for one-to-one telephone consultations) provoked widespread disbelief and mockery on social media, and puzzled consternation from exporters, importers and others. The spoof newspaper the Daily Mash commented (rudely and irreverently)…

https://www.thedailymash.co.uk/politics/politics-headlines/check-change-go-six-things-the-governments-new-slogan-could-mean-if-you-havent-got-a-fking-clue-20200713198455?fbclid=IwAR0r9Qx7yIN2rl8nU05Est6CqQ38V1naIfOtsbaQx8DlSjoFk0JvOMUqyeE

Later the same day erstwhile Tory-supporting Daily Mail journalist Dan Hodges tweeted: ‘Got to be honest, I’ve no idea what Government guidance is on anything any more. Masks. Distancing. Numbers of friends you can meet. When and where you can meet them. Going back to work. None of it. Clear Ministers have basically given up on trying to agree a coherent line.’

Philip Seargeant of the Open University, with whom I have collaborated, has written here on the contradiction between populist narratives and the kind of communications required to manage a crisis such as the pandemic…

https://www.afr.com/politics/how-the-pandemic-exposed-the-shortcomings-of-populist-leaders-20200722-p55ef5

At the end of July the Daily Mail ran another uncharacteristically critical piece on the latest slogans…

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8580437/Boris-Johnson-reveals-new-slogan-hands-face-space-test.html

…in September I was going to update this page with comments on the latest government initiatives, but Imogen West-Knights beat me to it with this Guardian piece (which mentions the ludicrously named ‘Op Moonshot’ project)…

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/sep/16/coronavirus-messaging-britain-operation-moonshot

Pivoting and reassessments, rumours of upcoming changes and irregular official announcements continued through the autumn into the winter. Having introduced a system of three tiered categories of local restrictions the government announced a relaxing over the five days of Christmas festivities, then on 19 December leaks via obscure social media accounts suggested the placing of London into a new Tier 4, prompting irreverent comment on Twitter

From Jonathan Nunn: “imagine inventing a tier system that divides the entire spectrum of conceivable events into three distinct categories, only to make a new tier to describe the unforeseen way you’ve fucked it”

From Piers Morgan: “We’re now at the stage of this pandemic where it’s safe to assume with 100% certainty that whatever Boris ‘U-turn’ Johnson promises about anything actually means the complete opposite will happen.”

From Becca Magnus: “Ah the good old days of waiting for press conferences while obsessively refreshing Twitter. Takes me back all those years ago to March.”

The new stipulations meant that in London and the South East four different Covid restriction policies had been imposed in 4 weeks…

What is Tier 4 and what are the rules?

In January 2021, after more shifts and a last-minute volte-face, a new ‘tier 5’ nationwide lockdown was imposed. The Prime Minister’s briefings announcing this and other reverses and innovations were mocked in posts circulating on social media…

Image

Also in January 2021 the Guardian offered a rare insight into the personalities involved, the prevailing ethos and the strategies pursued by the UK government in their attempts to manage communications…

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2021/jan/18/dominic-cummings-legacy-allegra-stratton-dan-rosenfield-whitehall

In February 2021 this video (I’m not sure of the exact provenance) dramatising the government’s pivoting and conflicting advice was circulating on social media…

Later in February 2021 there was much debate, on Twitter and elsewhere, of the government’s roadmap out of lockdown, of what exactly a roadmap is and how it might differ from a plan. Roadmaps (the most influential probably being Donald Rumsfeld’s pathway out of the Middle East imbroglios in 2003) are used in corporate strategy, usually as statements of a series of achievements to be aimed for, without waystage dates or details, but that is not the point: ‘roadmap’ is a buzzword evoking a way ahead, a potential route and an intention to travel, all reassuring for those who are lost, adrift or stalled.

(IN)EFFECTIVE INVECTIVE – the language of protest

During the Vietnam War, every respectable artist in this country was against the war. It was like a laser beam. We were all aimed in the same direction. The power of this weapon turns out to be that of a custard pie dropped from a stepladder six feet high.” -Kurt Vonnegut

Image result for Led by Donkeys white cliffs today

This morning, 31 January 2020, official date of the UK’s departure from the EU, the agitprop group Led by Donkeys projected on to the white cliffs of Dover a message from the UK to its European neighbours…

The group had been active since the Brexit referendum, erecting billboards across the UK replaying the messages of pro-Brexit and populist politicians. Led by Donkeys scores precisely because it doesn’t employ wit or wordplay, or Banksy’s admittedly striking  visual epigrams, but simply replicates and reminds us of the messages it thinks we should beware of…

Image result for led by donkeys

In the UK the recent language of protest, on placards in particular or in graffiti, has tended to employ irony, sarcasm, flippancy, facetiousness, to get its messages across by way of puns and cultural allusions…

Anti Brexit Signs

Invective, banter and wit are mainstays of the British national conversation, irreverence and unseriousness is a default, obligatory style of private and public discourse…

Anti Brexit Signs

The signing and symbology featuring in public demonstrations, and the debates taking place in public spaces is social media IRL; the slogans and quips on display are Twitter come to the streets…

Image result for lots of funny placards demonstrators

The tactics used by Led by Donkeys rather recalls the media manipulations advocated and practised by activists in the 1960s. By way of detournement the Situationists pioneered the hijacking of the multimodal spectacle projected – or inflicted – by capitalism, appropriating and reworking words and images and turning it against its creators…

…and in later anti-capitalist subversions employing the strategies known as culture-jamming, ad-jamming, ad-busting or subvertising

Graffiti Billboard. Postcard. If this lady were a car, she'd run you down.  Photo by Jill Posener, 1979.  Postcard published in England.

The street protestors’ placards, for all their wit, wisdom and wrath, have been dismissed by some as self-indulgent, harmless venting and ultimately ineffective. The rightists’ dismissals are perhaps to be expected…

https://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2019/03/dont-be-fooled-by-the-twee-placards-at-the-peoples-vote-march/

https://www.spiked-online.com/2019/03/25/the-reactionaries-are-on-the-march/

But slightly less predictable is disapproval from the Greens…

http://bright-green.org/2017/08/22/ive-had-enough-of-your-witty-placards/

graffiti saying 'words do not mean anything today'

All these protest styles and strategies are part of a rich and complex tradition which I have only touched upon in this short post. I will shortly add some, hopefully more detailed and more profound observations on the subject on this site, together with a visual history which I hope to incorporate in an upcoming broadcast…

Votes for Women

 

Today’s projection by Led by Donkeys differs from their static hoardings in using an original filmed recording of war veterans, and in adding a poignant final message in what looks like a heartfelt personal coda…

Image result for Led by donkeys our star

It does however appropriate a pro-Brexit trope, as well as an iconic setting, substituting real warriors for Brexiteer nostalgia and for what the left derides as ‘airfix patriotism’ -the false memories and imaginary heroism of those who cannot remember or have never studied the real British past.

In June 2020 the Open University made available its short film on the Language of Protest, accompanied by an essay by Dr Philip Seargeant on the same subject…

 

Here, with his kind permission, is Philip’s article, updating the topic for an audience still undergoing pandemic restrictions…

The Language of Protest: political demonstration in the age of Covid-19