Awake, sleeping beauties of jargon

10th January 1997 at 00:00
There is a new craze for dealing with stress. It is known as the "flotation tank". You pay your fee, and then lie in an enclosed tank of warm salt water and simply float there, in darkness and silence, for a period of time. It is said to be good therapy for you.

Some people, apparently, are so overwhelmed after floating in the tank for a while, they are unable to speak coherently when they emerge. For the past few years I have managed to obtain the same degree of paralytic non-alcoholic intoxication at no cost. I just sit and read Government documents. It switches off time and turns the brain to fine mulch.

It was amusing, therefore, to read that 130 people involved in the writing of the national vocational qualifications had been sent on courses to teach them how to write in plain English. The cost was a somewhat less than hilarious Pounds 116,000.

At about Pounds 900 a head, I wonder if it included an hour in the flotation tank. I hope the food was good. Or, as the NVQ writers themselves would have put it, before their plain English course: "I express the desire that the consumables and comestibles presented to the aforementioned clients were completely compliant with the operational specification."

All this riveting information was given in a written parliamentary answer. A team of researchers had fed all two million words found in NVQ documents into a computer, compared them with a vast store of articles from newspapers, broadcasts and books, and come to the conclusion that the language was often opaque and ambiguous. The conclusion was as unexpected as the discovery that an elephant is bigger than a gnat.

The whole saga left me asking more questions than were answered in the report. For example: did it really need as many as 130 people to hand craft all that tortuous bureaucratic rubbish? Could not two or three of them have achieved the same effect with a dictionary and a random number generator?

Moreover, how on earth did 130 people avoid getting in each other's way? Did they work in teams of 10 and agree to write each tenth word? ("I'll write 'performance' if you lot then go on to pen 'criteria', 'scrimbleboobs' and the rest".) In terms of the ethics of the research involved, was it fair to the computer to feed two million words of NVQ-speak into it? It is like asking someone to eat two million marshmallows to see if they are sweet. Is there no bill of rights for computers; no pressure group acting on their behalf? Was the computer off sick for several days afterwards?

Was there any need to do research into the complexity of NVQ terminology in the first place? All you have to do is ask teachers or students who have ever taught or studied the things. Any punter would have offered the same single unambiguous word in reply, which, in NVQ-speak, would be "excreta of the male bovine organism".

It seems bizarre that here we are in Britain, desperately trying to improve the knowledge and skill of thousands of experienced workers and trainees and the biggest obstacle is not the intellectual toughness of the course, but the bureaucratic complexity of the documents.

I wonder what Government documents will look like in future, now that the writers have been purified. I must admit to a tinge of sadness that these mighty wordsmiths, formerly capable of scoring a straight 100 on the most powerful bullshitometers in the universe, will now, like Samson shorn of his locks, whimper away in plain English.

Goodbye to "action tasks and originate evidence". Farewell to "undertake rectifying actions". Hello to "do things" and "correct mistakes".

The requirement for the new NVQ level 5 in "transplant surgery" will now read: Step 1, carve open chest; step 2, snip out old heart; step 3, slot in new heart; step 4, stitch everything up; step 5, collect surgeon's badge.

However, all is not lost. When people's skills are no longer needed they usually face two choices. The first is to retrain, which is what the NVQ-smiths have had to do. The second, and sometimes better option, is to find another job where you can still use your old skills. I have the very solution, a happy marriage between one problem and another.

In view of the complaints that some primary school reading materials are not demanding enough, why not let redundant or unretrainable NVQ employees spend an hour or two in the flotation tank and then re-write some of the great fairy stories and nursery rhymes in NVQ-speak? They could toughen them up a bit.

In future, young children throughout the land could skip around primary school playgrounds singing NVQ songs and rhymes. Stressed parents and teachers would no longer need a flotation tank, as they listened happily to their children trilling the new version of Baa Baa Black Sheep, which would read as follows: "Oh repeated wavering bleat of the ruminant mammal of the genus 'Ovis', "Are you in possession of any quantity of light-textured hirsute epidermis?" "Double affirmative, respected titular prefix. A triad of plethoric flexible receptacles containing the requisite material.

"A singularity for the predominant masculine personage, "A singularity for the predominant feminine personage, "And a singularity for the homunculus who resides at the nether extremity of the narrow highway."

Ah, they don't write them like that any more.

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