Head Master’s Assembly

St Peter's School

Head Master’s Assembly

Gobbledegook, plain speaking and ‘juicy words’

I was sitting on a train back from Manchester last week in a half full (or, if you're that kind of person, half empty) train carriage.  As is the way in this country, there was a collective and unspoken agreement amongst all the travellers in Coach C of the TransPennine Express that we would travel in silence.  The first fifteen minutes of the journey proceeded along those lines.  A companionable silence settled over the carriage.  This was interrupted only by the tinny announcements from our train guard whose informative bulletins vibrated through the carriage urgently, before returning us all to our private inner worlds.

It was then that a phone rang. A few of us scrabbled about to check if it was ours. (Everyone seems to have the same ring tone these days: the one that sounds like an old fashioned phone).  Anyway, the silence was then broken for several minutes as the recipient of the phone call proceeded to have a lengthy business conversation with his associate on the other end of the satellite signal.

Well, you all listen in, don't you? It's impossible not to. Impossible to keep your mind on your reading while this unknown stranger in your carriage conducts a conversation with the unknown interlocutor on the other end.  Partly this is because we all speak-shout into our phones. However much we try not to. So the conversation was conveyed to all ears in the carriage.

It was a tremendously dull conversation. At least I thought so. In fact, it was such a dull conversation that it somehow travelled through the spectrum of dull and came out the other side, transformed into something genuinely engrossing. Clearly, it was a serious and earnest conversation. Important information was being made. Agreement was being reached. Terms settled.  This was part of the drama, as our carriage-mate steered the conversation to where he needed it to go, and, presumably, the person at the other end laboured to do the same.

I couldn't help listening, too, because the phone call was punctuated by a mesmerising range of professional jargon. Management speak and business-talk - not that I could quite work out what the exact business was.  A cascade of technical expressions and organisational clichés reverberated around the carriage; they were amplified by the otherwise silent space, immersing the captive audience in the sound-world of this loud industry chat.

The high - or was it low - point in this verbal transaction was the following sentence. And I quote:

"Going forward, I think what we need to think outside the box and expand the art of the possible".

Now, I find that sentence had quite hard to interpret; to decode.  A recent survey by Institute of Leadership & Management, revealed that management speak is used in almost two thirds (64%) of offices, with nearly a quarter of people surveyed considering it to be a pointless irritation. The top three most annoying and over-used bits of business jargon were:  "let's touch base" (39%); "going forward" (55%); and top of the pops was: "Thinking outside the box" (57%).  My carriage-mate had managed to squeeze two of those into the same sentence!

Now, first things first: let’s remind ourselves that I'm being a Nosey-Parker, eavesdropping uninvited on one side of a private conversation. So, frankly, I have no right whatsoever to comment or pass any kind of judgment.  Secondly, I don't mean at all to disparage the chap who uttered this gnomic sentence.  Not at all. He is quite at liberty to express himself in whatever way he wants. It was, as far as I could tell, well-meant, sincere, professional. And, going on the ensuing conversation, the person at the other end had caught his drift perfectly well.

But it did prompt me to think about the value of plain speaking, and also the value of speaking as a person, an individual – rather than a manual. You can tell when someone is saying things in her or his own individual voice.  The danger of management speak, jargon, slogans, cliché is that it diminishes and muffles our original voice; it standardises us.

Words are beautiful, powerful things: a means of conveying such a range of sense and feeling; such diverse ideas and observations. Most activities have their special languages; esoteric terms and expressions that resonate with the initiated - those who understand and are part of the club. So it is with education. We bat around all kinds of special language and educational acronyms and shorthand abound. The MFL block is opposite DT and the CCF hut with the CQMS stores. 

Words have a power to reveal or to conceal. Political discourse is replete with spin and double talk; linguistic sleights of hand and verbal finessing.  The delight in language is a wonderful thing. Selective and careful deployment of what the teachers at Clifton School, our pre prep, would call 'juicy words'.  It’s good to make interesting sentences; to fill our self-expression with colour.

But it is also a truism that language can be used to mislead, to obscure, to obfuscate, to redirect, to exclude.  So, as in all things, there is a time for floral language, a time for using technical vocabulary and a time for plain speaking.

After all, this is Yorkshire. Where we do tend to like to call a tool with a sharp-edged (typically rectangular) metal blade and a long handle, used for digging or cutting earth, sand, turf, and the like – well, we call that a spade.