Wednesday, 14 January 2015


Prepared earlier (in 2008)

1984, 2008, 2050

Andrew Sutton

Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote –
The limits of my language mean the limits of my world
Every week on Radio 4’s Today programme John Humphrys determinedly challenges government ministers and other worthies to explain what their clichés and gobbledegook actually mean. For without real meaning policies are unrealisable, and they and their perpetrators are just that little more unaccountable. That goes for all of us.

Policy and practice

They say ‘a fish stinks from the head’, but the tendency to blur meanings and distinctions has not just happened top-down but thrives at all levels, to the extent that one must question whether we have a technical vocabulary at all worthy of the title.

Here, in no particular order (except that my least favourite is at the beginning) are some frequently met word and phrases:
    support, cope, wrap-around, roll out, evaluation, needs, monitoring, assess, joined-up, choice, community, feedback, networking, consultation, inclusive, efficient, evidence-based, fast-track, targets, deliverables, standards, hands-on, come to terms, partnership, value (as in value-added), best practice, counselling, quality/quality-assurance, vision, benchmark, audit, leadership, access, challenge, closure, engage, assessment, stakeholders, diversity, celebrate, reflective, critique, key, synergy, team, toolkit, leverage, discourse, empower, green…
There can be few who read this list who cannot add their own.

Many of these words once had real meaning but it can be hard now to convey that original sense – rendering the sense itself at risk of extinction. How, for example, can you now unambiguously refer to what used to be meant by a ‘student’, or what used to be understood to constitute ‘leadership’?

Where do such new words and meanings come from? Some are ‘warm fuzzies’, that appear to mean something and in fact don’t – but aim to attract a benign glow (‘community’ is used a lot like that, in different ways). Then there are words that once had real, even distinguished, meaning but have been so bandied around by politicians, academics and bureaucrats as to be now actively misleading (think of ‘inclusive’). There is psycho-babble (‘come to terms’), post-modernist discourse (‘engage’), an avalanche of management-speak (pick your own examples, there are enough of them!) and any government coinage meant to signify a new idea (‘joined-up’).

Ministers and officials love such words. Read or listen to their utterances and cringe. But what is on offer instead in the way of a technical vocabulary through which to communicate and extend – yes and to challenge (original sense) and to refute – concepts and practices central to the actual services that clients receive?

Of course there should be new words and concepts as the world and our understandings of it change (even perhaps in some instances advance). When language changes we all play our part. Do we know what we are really talking about half the time, do we speak in a truly technical language mutually understood?

What is a ‘special needs child’? Who attends a ‘special needs school’? What exactly does a ‘special needs teacher’ or a ‘special needs assistant’ bring to the party in the way of additional skills and understandings – and the special activities that these imply? What on earth does ‘inclusion’ mean in this country today? What does ‘autistic’ convey? What is ‘dyslexia’ when it’s at home? Does the word ‘play’ have any commonly understood meaning and is the newly fashionable word ‘pedagogy’ any more than hot air?


My own least favourite jargon word is ‘support’. In my ordinary real-world English dictionary the word ‘support’ already has 11 definitions. In the world of social policy and provision (somewhere that can sometimes seem not just another country but another planet) the range in its meanings seems infinite. Worse, such meanings are rarely if ever defined, one blurring unproblematically into the next, without apparent need for clear boundaries. You can support children and their families, support special educational needs, support inclusion, support pupils with disabilities, support the curriculum, support language, support emotional development, support behaviour (and even support ‘challenging behaviour’), support communities, support teachers, support support assistants...

Perhaps most fundamentally, and most undefinedly you can support learning – what does that mean in concrete terms that everyone can sign up to? In every instance ‘support’ presumably represents one or more professional practices that may or may not be defined (but are rarely identified) by this single all-encompassing word.

Even within a single example, does the word ‘support’ have a single specified meaning that everybody – or anybody – understands? What does it actually tell us that somebody will be actually doing, say, at 11.15 on a Tuesday morning, in the real world of practice? What specific skills will be exercised, what particular activities undertaken, what is really going to be happening? What can users of the service concretely expect? A Statement of Special Educational Needs that declares that there should be ‘support’ is no more acceptable than a prescription that just says ‘medicine’.

Whoever you are – no-nonsense grass-roots practitioner, manager or decision-maker, academic or researcher – try a personal experiment. For a whole week, every time that you hear or read the word ‘support’, ask yourself exactly what this means in practice. As for yourself, every time that the word springs to your lips or your computer, or even enters your thoughts, jump on it and hold it back. Try instead to express exactly what you mean in practice. If you can think of a better word, then communication and thinking – and maybe practice too – will be that little clearer. And if you can’t, well, maybe you didn’t really have anything practical to say or do in the first place.

Parents, clients, expect something rather better than this when they first enter the Orwellian realm of the ‘support services’. What is the matter with our children? What are you going to do about it? What is going to happen? How will this all turn out? What do you mean by ‘Support for their special needs?’ Real people want concrete answers, not flannel.


An ‘Orwellian realm’? In the novel 1984, George Orwell foresaw a fictional language called Newspeak, the aim of which was to make any alternative speech or thinking impossible by removing words or constructs permitting independent thought. By 2050 all knowledge of the previous language would have disappeared and the whole literature of the past destroyed. The underlying theory was that if something can’t be said or read, then it can’t be thought.

Orwell was a bit out with his dates. I remember the year 1984: it was nothing like he predicted. Already in 2008, however, and not just in ‘special needs’, his 2050 seems well on its way! How many younger professionals, for example, can read and understand the technical literature of just a few years ago?

We are not, however, helpless. If the solution of this problem is not in our own hands, then what is?

First published...

The above passage has been extracted from a short item published in 2008:

Sutton, A. (2008) 1984, 2008 and 2050, Interconnections Quarterly Journal, vol. 1, no 1, April. 

If anything, since them the problem outlined above has only worsened. Indeed, England now has legislation for children with special needs and their parents that is dependent upon such undefined definitions.  

1 comment:

  1. Emma McDowell writes –

    Those of us who have 'come into the language' by living in the UK and picking it up AS IT IS TODAY– a living changing organism, model or structure – cannot help falling in with the strange, fuzzy and yes, sometimes directly misleading newest expressions when trying to communicate 'as they do'. Would it that language were left in the masterful hands of poets, writers and all those people with taste, linguistic ability and clear purpose of what they want to express and communicate in writing or public speech!!

    For my part, as a linguist, trying to translate exactly the meaning of words and expressions from one rich language into another (such as from English or German into my mother tongue: Hungarian) the fuzziness of 'official' or pseudo-academic texts becomes a major challenge. (I add one example to your list, Andrew: 'issue' or 'to take issue'…)

    Translate an 'official' text and the ready product may loose something of the smoothness (or misleading smoothness), but, in many cases, also of the clumsiness of the original. In the hands of a conscientious native translator the text may become clearer in the 'new' language.

    I would rather be accused of producing a 'free' translation than not trying to give back the taste and the feeling of the original. It must certainly be so in the case of texts that are worthy of literary ranking, be it an essay or a witty article. (Poetry is another category.) But even horribly dry academic prose, or any kind of modern journalistic offering can only be given back as UNDERSTANDABLE in another language by untying the knots and thereby improve upon the original….

    But try to 'give back as it is' and the shallowness and confusion is revealed in an even greater misleading fuzziness.

    Emma adds (arrow in original) –

    (That’s how somebody’s English prose looks who thinks Hungarian.)