Sunday 5 February 2012

Calling a spade a spade

By Geraint Wong, The Straits Times, 3 Feb 2012

THROUGHOUT its history, English has been, as veteran linguist David Crystal describes it, 'a vacuum cleaner of a language, readily sucking in words from whichever other languages it meets'.

The result of this almost indiscriminate absorption is a delightful smorgasbord of words to choose from, each with its own distinctive flavour, to suit every need and circumstance.

Consider, for instance, that asking, inquiring, quizzing, querying, questioning and interrogating all involve essentially the same action, but carried out in so many different ways.

We could say, with apologies to George Orwell, that all words are equal, but some are more equal than others.

This means that, while relishing the vastness (some say bulkiness) of the English lexicon, one needs to pick words out with care and use those which are easily understood by the intended audience.

In the past month, a few words have cropped up in the news that caused some to wonder whether such care had been exercised by their users.

Attention was drawn to the issue when Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan declared in Parliament on Jan 9: 'PUB should not have used the word 'ponding'. As far as I am concerned, I call a spade a spade. A flood is a flood.'

The event in question was prolonged heavy rain last Dec 23, which caused what the national water agency referred to as 'ponding' at malls such as Liat Towers and Lucky Plaza. Dr Balakrishnan made the statement when asked by an MP about the difference between flash floods and ponding.

To be fair, the PUB officers were probably right in their choice of term: Ponding is a specific type of flooding that occurs in relatively flat areas. And there are other categories of floods, distinguished, for example, by their duration (slow-onset, rapid-onset) or location (coastal, urban).

But such technical distinctions should be reserved for official reports and the like, not inflicted on the public.

In this case, the word 'ponding', with associations of idyllic visions of ponds, may sound less severe than the word 'flood'.

Yet, as the minister continued, 'as long as there's water accumulating somewhere it's not supposed to be, as long as it has implications on human safety or business operations, that's a flood, and that's a problem that needs to be resolved'.

Eyebrows were also raised when news broke about the cave-in of an embankment along the Bukit Timah Canal on Jan 17, after 'cavities' were found in it.

Most people know what cavities are, of course, but the word is more commonly applied in daily conversation to parts of the anatomy than to gaps in drain walls.

Again, the word 'cavity' is technical - it is often used in documents related to building and construction, and also sounds more formal than a plain hole.

Like 'cavity', many English words derived from Latin tend to possess an aura of sophistication and scholarliness that their native counterparts lack. The contrast is discernible in the pairs 'inquire' and 'ask', 'residence' and 'home', 'educate' and 'teach', among many others.

This is probably why economists are fond of using the Latinate expression 'sub-par' when forecasting slow economic growth, instead of the more mundane 'below average'. Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam used the word twice in recent months - first on Oct 28 last year, then again on Jan 3.

Another Latinate word that appeared in recent news reports was 'interdict', used by the Ministry of Home Affairs to refer to the action taken against the former chiefs of the Singapore Civil Defence Force and Central Narcotics Bureau.

A simpler expression, such as 'removed from office' or 'barred from performing duties', could have been used instead, for greater clarity.

To be sure, 'sub-par' and 'interdict' are excellent words (and snappier too), but take longer for the person in the street to process than more familiar synonyms.

The crux of the matter is this: In their communication with the public, especially on matters of general concern, experts and organisations should use language that is accessible - that is, call a spade a spade - rather than employ jargon to sound learned or mask the unpleasantness of a situation.

The writer George Eliot once said: 'The finest language is mostly made up of simple unimposing words.' Amid the plethora of items in the English vocabulary, may such words be the ones we encounter the most in the news.

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