With the UK general election just behind us, the talk of the language used in the debates still lies ahead. Last night, on the grammar phone-in of the BBC Radio 5’s Up All Night, the presenter Dotun Adebayo discussed the use of political phrases, buzzwords and clichés in the run-up to the election with his regular guests on the programme, Terry Victor, the co-author of The Concise Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, and Nevile Gwynne, the author of the highly prescriptive Gwynne’s Grammar. The programme is a rich source of complaints about perceived grammar mistakes, so it will certainly be a topic of future posts.
Callers submitted their favourite examples of obfuscating political doublespeak including spare room subsidy (as means of avoiding the word tax), cost of living crisis and the squeezed middle. On the same subject, in comparing the speech of politicians during a televised debate with a corpus of spoken British English, Tony McEnery and Robbie Love from Lancaster University discuss in an article the large discrepancies between the two. Austerity, for example, became such a high-frequency word in the analysed debate that it matched the frequency of the pronouns your and these in normal speech.
Although public pleas for simpler language and the plain English movement in politics seem to be consistent, some of the Up All Night listeners complained about the usage of colloquial English and slang expressions among politicians. Ed Miliband was criticised for saying “Hell yes” and “That ain’t gonna happen” in a BBC interview, David Cameron was criticised for using the same infamous “non-word” ain’t, and Russel Brand’s speech in political discussions was described as lazy for his “dropping the ts from the English language”.
One of the main goals of the politicians’ public appearances is appealing to the majority of their potential voters. Avoiding giving specifics and making obligations is, however, yet another important goal manifested in obfuscating lingo. This all creates an interesting mixture of occasional colloquialisms, which seem unnatural coming from the (often public-school) educated politicians, and ambiguous muddled jargon.
This election showed that politicians can also become linguistic innovators, sometimes inadvertently. The Scottish Labour MP Jim Murphy created the word fundilymundily while trying to pronounce fundamentally in a live BBC debate. Since then, an Up All Night caller claims, the word has entered common usage in Scotland. To check the life of this new word and the contexts in which it can be used, search for #fundilymundily on Twitter.
Have you noticed any buzzwords, clichés or grammar mistakes in the political debates? Fundilymundily let us know about them in the comments below!