Language, again

Just came across this piece by John Humphrys in the Sunday Times. I’ve read him on the subject before, and it’s very irritating. All the points he makes about language are absolutely correct, and so well put that I’m cheering him on.

Then come his examples. They’re poor examples. This time, he takes a document from some investment bank, describing a particular team’s role:

The structuring team sits within the Equity Derivatives Group. Its main roles are: i. Product innovation: define and write new payoffs with sales, traders and quants (pro-active and reactive), participate to the study of the risk management of the new payoffs. The objective is to increase sharply the amount of pro-active business . .

It is in fairly obscure jargon; the nature of the business is that different companies, or even different divisions within the same company, develop their own, different terms for the same thing. As a result, while the passage makes sense to me, working in the same field, I am not quite sure I am not misinterpreting it. “Pro-active” is a danger word, often used as a meaningless buzzword, but here it has a quite obvious and well-defined meaning.

It’s certainly not well written. Participate to?. This is just the sort of thing he has been talking about, but here the writer gets away with it, in that it doesn’t obscure his meaning. Next time he uses the wrong preposition he might not be so lucky. There are criticisms of style that could be made too: the last (incompletely quoted) sentence is ugly. But as the whole passage is likely to be obscure to people who are not familiar with the details of the derivatives business, it is impossible for Humphrys to separate the essential obscurity from the avoidable errors. He just calls it “meaningless drivel”.

Private Eye’s “Pseuds’ Corner” makes similar false steps. In amongst the execrable mounds of advertising, management and political mumbo-jumbo, there are odd extracts from technical journals covering particular specialties. To me, many of them might as well be Swahili, and some of them are as clear as the speaking clock.

Humphrys is conflating several issues. One is the general sloppiness of language, which the bulk of his article describes excellently. It is a major problem, as it leads to ambiguities, and, in some cases deliberately, to statements which appear to mean something, but on closer inspection state no actual identifiable facts, but convey only a vague impression or emotion. Another is that jargon, which is necessary, but in some cases seems to be intentionally less accessible than it could be, in order to exclude outsiders from a clique. A third is that when those within a particular jargon-using culture need to communicate to outsiders, they frequently are unable to do so effectively because they have forgotten the non-jargon terms they need. A fourth is that most of us, unlike Mr Humphrys, are not professional communicators. We have other work to do, and writing down a description of our work, when requested, is often an unwelcome chore to be dispensed with with as little time and attention as possible. A fifth is the desire of some to show off by indulging in some fashionable cliche or phrase which they don’t really understand, in preference to the perfectly simple and ordinary way of saying what they want. (That is probably to blame for the “sits within” of the example).

I am not sure even that the claim that jargon is deliberately intended to obscure and exclude is true. It often seems that way because specialists completely exclude the normal words for their subjects from their vocabulary. You will never hear a computer specialist talk about a “computer”, or a telephone engineer talk about an “exchange”. That, however, has a reasonable explanation. The common-usage words are just not precise enough for technical use: does a “computer” include the monitor? Is an “exchange” all the switches on a site, or is each one an “exchange”? It is clearer for the specialist to avoid these words.

Humphrys claims that his example could not be understood even by those it was intended for. Frankly, I don’t believe him. It is more likely that, in an example of another modern bad habit, it has been sent to far too long an email list, including a bunch of people who have no reason to know what the role of the equity derivatives “structure team” is.

When selecting targets to attack for bad English, force must be concentrated on those who ought to be making themselves clear to a wide audience: journalists, politicians, teachers and people selling products.

Here is a classic, from Oracle, highlighted by Bruce Schneier, when the product they advertised widely as “unbreakable” turned out to be full of security holes:

Oracle’s security chief, Mary Ann Davidson, claims that the campaign “speaks to” fourteen independent security evaluations that Oracle’s database server passed.

What does “speaks to” mean? In English, it means that the security evaluations were the target of the campaign, which is obviously rubbish.

What is actually means in the context is “is a lie inspired by”, which is not what Ms Davidson wants to be caught saying in so many words.

Instead, a meaningless phrase has been used in attempt to hide the gap between the facts at the base of the campaign (some researchers had looked for security holes and not found any), and the claims made by the campaign (there were definitely no security holes). To anyone at all familiar with software, that’s a yawning great gap, but the spokesperson attempts to bridge it by saying that the claims “spoke to” the facts, which doesn’t mean anything at all and leaves the gap unbridged.

There is another modern curse and obstacle to communication: the spell-checker, but that’s off the point and I’ll rant about that on another occassion.

Superpower Europe?

Yglesias comments on “The United States of Europe: The New Superpower and the End of American Supremacy”, a new book by T R Reid.

I haven’t read it, but I blogged recently on how many in Europe are planning to build a new superpower to challenge the USA, even to the extent of being able to oppose it militarily. I didn’t get round to explaining why they would fail.

The European members of NATO spend $200bn a year on defense. The USA spends $393bn.

Britain and France, who between them account for something like half of that $200bn, have much of their military tied up in former colonies

Britain is reducing its forces.

But that’s only the start. Except in a “total war” situation, defense spending has

to come, in a sense, out of discretionary income. Europe’s economies are already struggling under the weight of high taxes and expensive welfare systems. There is just nowhere they can find the money to fund a superpower-grade military. Even enlargement doesn’t help here; bringing in Eastern European countries adds significantly to the total size of the economy, but whatever extra tax revenue becomes available for military must be used directly for defending the new nations’ borders. Indeed, as the new nations are expecting subsidy “structural funds” from the wealthier nations, their accession leaves less in the pot for military adventures.

The facts are, Americans are used to spending 3.5% of GDP on defence, and Europeans (except for Greece) aren’t.

Of course, as the USA has a much higher rate of economic growth than the EU members, the existing gap is just going to widen.

But all this is built on the idea that an EU Common Foreign Policy, theoretically established over a decade ago by the Treaty of Maastricht, is even possible. There’s been no sign of one yet, and again, the enlargement of the Union makes it less likely that unanimity can be reached. While it seems that the latest round of centralisation will be difficult to get accepted, the idea of having countries’ own servicemen directed by a policy made by other countries is hardly on the cards.

This objection links with the previous ones, as the countries where there is the most enthusiasm for the idea of challenging the USA are the ones with the most stagnant economies and the lowest growth. The countries with the healthiest economies are the ones least hostile to the United States. This is not coincidence; the hostility to the United States is rooted largely in hostility to the economic system which enables growth. (The text of the speech linked to in that article is very much worth reading).


One of the problems with being a pedant of language is that, while it seems obvious to you that a particular irritating error will in future lead to problems, it is hard to find concrete examples.

The overuse of quotation marks is one of the most annoying featuers of modern English, somewhere behind the confusion of “affect” and “effect”.

So now we get the following headline from the BBC:

Powell ‘resigns’ top US job

The quotations there are very significant. They tell me quite clearly that he didn’t resign, he was sacked. The only problem is that I have not heard that suggested elsewhere, and indeed there is no suggestion in the body of the story that he didn’t just resign, rather than ‘resigning’.

Another headline in the same section is

US to remain ‘aggressive’ abroad

The quotation marks there are justified: the writer is indicating that Powell used the word ‘aggressive’, and that it’s not just his own interpretation of what was said.

Of course, ‘aggressive’ on its own, in the context of foreign policy, rather implies attacking or threatening to attack other countries, while the larger quote in the article is:

This policy had traditionally been “aggressive in terms of going after challenges, issues”, Mr Powell added, and the president was “going to keep moving in this direction”

Which, arguably, isn’t really the same thing. By pulling out the word ‘aggressive’ the BBC is deliberately misrepresenting what Powell said. But that’s just ordinary BBC bias, and we’re all used to that.

When I get misled by the BBC, I want it to be deliberate, and not just incompetence. I expect my TV license money to be spent on spouting left-wing propaganda in excellent English.

Is Europe becoming Islamicised?

There is an idea growing in right-wing circles in the US that part of the reason for the divergence between the US and Europe over the war on Iraq and the issue of Islamicist terrorism is that Europe is subject to a gradual takeover by Islam through the mechanism of immigration from Islamic countries. The fact is that commentators who see this are being misled into overestimating the social effect in Europe of Muslim immigrants, and underestimating the long-standing differences between American and European culture.

The first illusion is that there are many political battles in various European countries which appear to be between “native” Europeans and Muslim immigrants. In fact, these political issues are argued between left and right within the native political community, with the immigrants themselves as interested but largely powerless bystanders. It could be argued that it makes no difference whether the Islamic side is being advanced by its own effort or by that of native allies, if the effect is the same, but the fact is that the allies (usually on the left) are only able to hold these pro-minority positions and achieve power while the Muslims are not seen as a threat by the majority population.

In fact, in Britain at least, the Muslim population as a whole is not seen as any threat at all. Though a significant percentage of the population, they come overwhelmingly from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, and their culture does not include any recent history of jihad, such as can be found in North Africa and the Middle East. Those Muslims in Britain who have become prominent in the media advocating jihad, such as the infamous Abu Hamza, are of a totally different cultural background and are completely unrepresentative of the Muslim population in the country.

That is not to say that there can not be any problems with Muslim immigration in Britain, but it is not of an unprecedented kind. Tensions can rise in areas with very large immigrant populations, but these are triggered the usual political issues – conflict over allocation of government resources, and so on. The Muslim immigrants to Britain are integrating slowly into British culture. Note that the Indians and British have been linked for a hundred and fifty years, and there is a lot of common ground beyond tea and curry.

Europeans feel much less threatened by terrorism than Americans, having in many cases lived with it for generations. While the World Trade Centre attacks caused a larger scale of death than Europe has experienced from terrorists (but not from WWII), the sequels have been much nearer the scope that Europeans have come to accept. Also, extremist Islam is not a new or unfamiliar enemy to Europeans. France has been fighting for half a century; Britain fought a 50,000 strong jihadi army under Muhammad Ahmand at Omdurman. The battle was of course extremely one-sided, but the only thing making the handling of the enemy more difficult today is the necessity to limit civilian casualties. Carpet-bombing Fallujah from the air would be the equivalent in force ratios to Kitchener’s Maxim guns in the Sudan.

The recent murder of Theo Van Gogh in the Netherlands by Islamist extremists illustrates one further point. In the days following, more than 20 Mosques or Muslim schools have been burnt down. For a European country, the prospect of a civil war against radicalised Muslim immigrants is something to be feared, but there is no need to fear losing one. At the end of the day, like any other immigrant group, Muslims in Europe live on the sufferance of the majority population. The Muslims would trigger genocidal violence against themselves long before they could become a serious threat to the host populations. This is little comfort from a humanitarian viewpoint, but it exposes talk of “Eurabia” as so much hyperbole.

Another factor which has tended to mislead American observers is, I suspect, that during the period of the cold war they tended to underestimate the differences between Europeans and Americans. Confronted for the first time with these differences in the context of the war on Iraq, they are falsely attributing long-standing attitues to Islamic influence. One longstanding European position is secularism. While the trappings of Christianity survived past the middle of the twentieth century, the Northern European countries have not been Christian for a hundred years, or in the case at least of France, for two hundred.

Another of these attitudes is anti-Americanism. I believe that this is pervasive across the European elite, at least at an emotional level. This emotional attitude can be suppressed for political reasons, and largely was during the cold war, but if one considers the substantial minority of Europeans who saw the USA as more of a threat than the USSR through the 60s and 70s, it is hardly surprising if a larger group is more afraid of the vastly more powerful USA of the 21st century than of the likes of Saddam Hussein. Nor is this fear of the USA as irrational as some Americans might think. Western Europe has not been in conflict with the USA since the end of the Second World War, but that was a result of Europe’s acceptance of American dominance in the face of the threat of the USSR. With that threat removed, many Europeans wish actively to prevent a single-superpower world. The rhetoric is about providing a balance or counterweight to American power, as in some quotes from an article in The Observer:

“The implications of a unipolar world are bad for everyone concerned. If America stands aloof from global problems, it is accused of isolationism. If it intervenes, it is accused of imperialism. Either way, it becomes a target of resentment and violence. For the rest it means frustration and impotence.

Complaining won’t do any good. The rest of us have to raise our game and provide America with partners they can’t ignore. For Britain, that means building a more united Europe with a more coherent foreign policy and a strong single currency. It’s either that or another American century.”

– David Clark, former special adviser to Robin Cook at the Foreign Office.

“If one country must be so dominant militarily, then it is probably better that it is the United States rather than another country. However, history suggests that such dominance leads to abuse and it is encumbent on the rest of the world to find ways of restraining the United States through international law, countervailing power and dialogue.

The European Union, which has achieved parity with the United States in trade and investment, has a major responsibility in this endeavour. Plans for a European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) therefore need to be accelerated and EU governments need to commit adequate resource to it”.

-Victor Bulmer-Thomas, Director of the Royal Institute of International Affairs

These people are not commentators or pundits, they are policy makers. Implicit in phrases like “find ways of restraining the United States through … countervailing power” is the option of at least credibly threatening the USA with military conflict. This is one of the major driving forces behind enlarging and strengthening the EU. If European politicians are already thinking in terms of fighting against the USA, then they are not going to be in any hurry to oppose the wave of Islamism which is currently the USA’s most active enemy. Just as France supported North American rebels against the British Empire in the 1770s, and Britan and France supported the Confederacy against the Union in the 1860s, these Europeans are likely to be sympathetic to any minor power that is likely to weaken the USA.

I am attempting to characterise a political view that is widespread across Europe. In Britain, it is known as the “Post-War Consensus” — essentially the mainstream political othordoxy prior to the Thatcher revolution. It is a significant minority view in Britain, but is still the dominant ideology across much of the Continent, notably France, and, equally importantly, in the institutions of the European Union. The key elements of this ideology are a highly regulated economy, protected industry, the welfare state, and international institutions such as the EU and the UN.

Since 1980, some compromises have been made on the economic front, towards liberalisation of trade and deregulation of markets, but they have been strongly resisted and there is still a huge constituency for reversing them. It can be described as a left-wing but it was shared by the mainstream right until the 1980s, and is in a sense conservative — seeking to return to the status quo of the 1960s and 70s. If you ask a member of this group whether there is a “clash of civilisations”, he will probably tell you that there is. But the threat to civilisation he sees is not militant Islam, it is Hollywood, and deregulated markets, and globalised world trade. It is not the crescent moon that is overwhelming Old Europe — they’re coping with that fairly well — it is the Stars and Stripes that is the banner of the enemy.

That is the real problem, as far as many Europeans are concerned, with the War on Terror. There are ways of dealing with a terrorist threat at home, other than attacking its sources abroad. These ways may be more effective or less effective, but that is not the issue. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, whatever their effect on Islamist terror, demonstrate that there is one military superpower in the world, that can act alone even beyond its traditional “sphere of influence”. This is more of a shock to them than a few airliners flying into skyscrapers.

Even to moderate British, who would not align themselves with this Post-War Consensus view, there is still a tradeoff: damaging terrorism is good, but it has to be set against making the USA more powerful and confident. It must be amusing to the anti-American thinkers in France or Germany when American critics paint them as weak or effete allies, when in fact the reason they are not joining the fight alongside the USA is that their sympathies lie with the other side.

Updates: Thanks for your comments. Please look also at the follow-up post looking at Europe’s chances of actually attaining superpower status.

Professor Reynolds also linked to Transatlantic Intelligencer, by John Rosenthal. I’m concentrating on Britain, and he’s looking at US-European relations with the emphasis on France and Germany. As I would expect, he finds no evidence of “Islamisation” but a very high degree of ingrained anti-Americanism.