Non sequitur

What? Seriously, what?

A number of local councils in Britain have banned their staff from using Latin words, because they say they might confuse people. Several local authorities have ruled that phrases like “vice versa”, “pro rata”, and even “via” should not be used, in speech or in writing…Other local councils have banned “QED” and “ad hoc”…

Assuming this is real and not a Daily Mail scare story dressed up as journalism (which it manifestly sounds like, except that it’s on the BBC website) this is crazy. Surely no-one seriously believes that “vice versa” is an obscure latin phrase. It’s an English phrase; who cares about its etymology? Next someone will suggest banning “cul de sac” because it’ll confuse non-French speakers. Or “margarine”. Half our language is appropriated from elsewhere, and it seems meaningless to tag a few key phrases and mutter darkly “those are foreign”.

Even leaving aside their derivation, are these phrases really obscure and elitist? I don’t speak a word of latin, but I know perfectly well what all these examples mean, yet according to the Plain English Campaign “the ban might stop people confusing the Latin abbreviation e.g. with the word ‘egg’.” Because, you know, that one always confuses people. Why not just go the whole hog and ban words of more than two syllables?

I find this all very surreal because this kind of “PC gone mad” story is normally anathema to me. Usually the journalist has ridiculously mischaracterised a fairly sensible decision, and it’s the press facing my ire not the bewildered subject of the story. In this case the councils are not imposing an outright ban, merely “discouragement”, but on the face of it I still can’t understand what they could be thinking.

Okay, I’m taking a few deep breaths and disengaging rant mode. On a tangentially related note, the godlike Stephen Fry talks lengthily, wisely and poetically about the beauty of language and the insanity of trying to freeze it in place on his new improved blog. An oasis of common sense.

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