Words, what do they mean?
Words, words, words, that you read, what do they mean? That’s what old Polonius asks Hamlet, who makes a satirical reply saying old men have a most plentiful lack of wit. But the same accusation can be made of most writers today, especially in the social sciences, who try to shore up their arguments with invented and convoluted jargon.
Well, jargon has its uses when it is used within a trade to signify an act or thing that would otherwise require a string of simple words as description. But does it serve any purpose in ordinary speech other than to provide the speaker’s words with a false sense of precision? Far from adding something to the meaning, jargon could mislead as well.
The natural sciences, when they evolved in technological complexity from the natural philosophy of the eighteenth century, necessarily developed specialized terminology to be concise in definitions. The social sciences which developed a century later were far lower down in the academic pecking order. Americans social scientists, many of whom were German immigrants, borrowed from the traditions of their mother tongue to invent new words, to give the weight of precision which a simpler word might not convey. In no time at all, an academic tradition developed in which a difficulty in understanding stood for scholarship. Merrily verbs were coined from nouns. Such excessive imagination has caught on. For example, newscasters these days talk about some unhappy person being ‘strangulated,’ as if something worse has been done to them than being strangled in a common or garden sense. The sacrifice of literary writing has not even been felt as a loss. Few academics care to remember Shakespeare’s warning that ‘the man that hath no music in himself, Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds, Is fit for treason, stratagems and spoils.’ If they do, they do not think it applies to their writing.
Winston Churchill, an imperial stylist, was proud that his inability to progress beyond third form at Harrow at least taught him the beauty of the simple English sentence. He commented on the unnecessary absurdity of choosing complexity over simplicity, on whether ‘implementing’ could mean more than ‘carrying out?’ Of course, on occasion he could humorously invent jargon, as when he politely accused an opponent of lying by calling his words ‘terminological inexactitude.’ Latter-day Tories came up with the variant ‘being economical with the truth’ as a justification for lying, but this like the intention has a mean sound to our ears.
In the present era of neo-liberalism, we tend to put management practice on the high pedestal of knowledge. It then becomes natural for even ministers to talk about ‘a trust deficit,’ when all they mean is ‘untrustworthy.’ But the management term is definitely untrustworthy in itself. By talking of a ‘deficit’ there is an implication that a mere topping up can remedy the defect. However, life’s experience teaches us all that there are no simple remedies for untrustworthiness, that it might take years of fostering a new relationship to get over the earlier doubts. For example, the ‘trust deficit’ that exists between India and China today cannot be rectified by any amount of topping up of the ‘trust deficit,’ whatever that might mean.
English-speaking academics, overawed by the development of Continental post-modern concepts, in a world desperately trying to be modern, have permitted the immigration of a flood of words whose signified meanings are at odds with the reality they express. Newscasters and politicians talk airily of ‘narratives’ when all they present are sketchy, ill-digested partial accounts of happenings on hearsay evidence. A ‘discourse’ in the traditional sense was a learned conversation carried out with sympathy and decorum to understand each other’s point of view. What is meant by this post-modern term today is snarling at a high-pitch an opinion filled with prejudice and directed with rancor at a person, with whom one has no desire to have a civilized discourse.
Of course, remnants of John Company’s jargon continue to be celebrated in India long after the original meaning has been lost sight of. There is no other reason for maintaining ‘Collector’ as the title of the chief administrator of a district, unless of course it is to overawe simple Indians with its imputed sense of authority with impunity. It remains to remind people that if they are poor, dalit, Muslim or tribal, they can always be arrested for sedition or criminal conspiracy or under any of the horrendous laws the British passed to keep Indians subdued.
But, perhaps, there are simpler ways of subduing the population today when institutions mould ‘human resources’ to meet the needs of capitalists, politicians, bureaucrats, and the police. Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher of the scientific Enlightenment, conceived of all human beings as ‘ends in themselves,’ not as slaves or serfs for the use of somebody else. No one disputed this concept, and there is no contradiction to it in Indian philosophy either. ‘Education’ – a term rejected out of hand by present-day rulers – was a process by which individuals, all unique to themselves, were assisted to develop their spiritual, artistic, and social potential. Teachers in an older world were blessed by witnessing this process of growth among their younger wards. When did they turn into overseers driving humanity to do the bidding of others?
(The writer is a reputed thinker and humanist who lives at Ketti, The Nilgiris)