After all

Spelling, grammar, elements of style and the engineering gobbledegook of the year.

Engineering, above all, demands precision in everything. That includes language and the way one's thoughts, observations and conclusions are expressed.

In real life, however, such accuracy is pretty hard to find.

Recently, I had about half an hour to spare waiting for a train in Ashford, Kent. To begin with, I headed for the 'Grancaffe' under the eye-catching sign: "Try the Italian Coffee Experience".

The experience was watery.

In the Eurostar Departure Lounge, I spotted a cluster of other ominous signs, all starting with the word 'terminal': "Terminal Trading", "Terminal Bar", "Terminal Café", "Terminal Beers, Spirits, Wines". They brought back memories of a "Terminal Drinks Kiosk" at the British RAF base on Ascension Island, where I once stopped on the way to the Falklands. Despite the suffocating heat, I was unable to bring myself to buy a drink at that potentially deadly outlet…

Such linguistic clumsiness and double entendre - visible to me, an "ex-foreigner", but apparently invisible to native speakers - made me ponder the Brits' complicated relationship with their beautiful mother tongue.

It must be some sort of a nationwide spelling conspiracy that prompts many well-educated Britons to spell 'beggar' as 'begger' and 'cemetery' as 'cemetary'. A survey in the Oxford Magazine came up with the following examples of the most common spelling mistakes by Oxford undergraduates: 'angery' ('angry'), 'magnet' ('magnate'), 'wether' ('weather' or was it 'whether'?), and so on. If you asked me, I would call it 'visciously disasterous' - in full accordance with another popular Oxford expression.

When the country's top students cannot spell properly, it comes as no surprise that some teachers of English follow in their errant footsteps. The Northern Examining Board shamefully misspelled the word 'Practice' as 'Practise' on the title page of its GCSE English Practice Papers several years ago. If one day some pupils make it into publishing, we can expect new editions of 'Consise Oxford Dictianery' and 'Enciclopoodia Britannica' in the not-so-distant future.

Alas, the problems do not end with spelling. It is the perfectly spelled English words that often reveal their users' abysmal linguistic ignorance. A London solicitor, who - unbelievably - had spelled my first and last names correctly, once cited my occupation as a 'communist for the Guardian' in an official statement, which he mailed over to me for signing. I sent the statement back, asking him to correct the mistake. Sure enough, the 'corrected' version duly called me a 'Communist for the Guardian' - with a capital 'C'.

Interestingly, an English-language Internet bookshop advertising one of my books, which described the circumstances behind my defection from the USSR and was subtitled 'Revelations of an Unwilling Exile', made it into 'Revelations of an UN Whilling Exile', although I had done nothing bad to the UN and had never even thought of 'whilling' this respected international organisation. 

The English language is experiencing an invasion of such meaningless lexical monsters as 'pro-active', 'facilitation', 'centre' (as in 'food centre' instead of 'restaurant' and 'cremation centre' instead of 'crematorium'), and so on.

As for the "style" in general, it is habitually relegated to the fashion pages of glossy magazines. In a popular guide-book, published in London, I read the following (typical!) description of Stonehenge: "Situated on the Salisbury plains, the mysterious history behind this ancient rock has intrigued generations of scientists and historians". Or another description from a national newspaper: "On arrival in Edinburgh, the Castle dominates the cityscape". Or yet another: "Designed by one of Scotland's leading architects, the contemporary design is reminiscent of an ancient Scottish castle…" They reminded me of a classical stylistic blunder, quoted by Chekhov (routinely misspelled as 'Chekov' in the UK, by the way) in one of his letters: "Having peeped out of the window, my hat was blown away by the wind".

It is not by chance therefore that an organisation called Plain English Campaign has established an annual "Foot in the Mouth" Award for the best (worst?) gobbledegook of the year. In 2007, for example, the overall winner was former England soccer team manager Steve McLaren, who said about Wayne Rooney: "He is inexperienced but he is experienced in terms of what he's been through".

The runner-up was, unsurprisingly, George W Bush with "All I can tell you that when the governor calls, I answer his phone".

In 1969, mathematician G Harry McLaughlin came up with SMOG - simple measure of gobbledegook, a measuring unit to calculate text's readability. SMOG's formula is too complicated to reproduce here, i.e. basically unreadable. Yet I invite the readers to come up with their nominations for EGOY - engineering gobbledegook of the year. The sources can be various: manuals, articles, instructions even dictionaries. At the end of 2008, we'll review your response and will announce nominations for EGOY 2008. It will be you, the readers, who will make the final judgement before EGOY 2008 is awarded.

We look forward to your nominations. Please indicate the sources clearly and mark your emails 'EGOY', to facilitate the pro-active processing of your responses in the shortest possible period of time.

Recent articles

Info Message

Our sites use cookies to support some functionality, and to collect anonymous user data.

Learn more about IET cookies and how to control them

Close