Lost for Words; the mangling and manipulating of the English language by John Humphrys

This book (written in 2004) is a polemic against the standard of the English language used in British public life. John Humphrys was, and still is, lead presenter for BBC Radio 4’s flagship news and current affairs programme, Today, broadcast between 6am and 9am each weekday morning. It sets the political agenda for the day and getting an interview slot on it is essential to have a message make any sort of impact on discussion in the next 24 hours.

Humphrys has therefore come into contact with a large quantity of written material in the form of reports, statements and press notices from organisations of all sorts. He has also directly interviewed – sometimes challengingly – the Great and the Good for the thick end of fifty years as a press and broadcast media journalist. So he knows the English language fairly intimately.

So given the subtitle of this book, The Mangling and Manipulating of the English language, you might expect a series of oh-so-polite rants about the state of the English used today. (Things have not changed much in the intervening ten years.) And that is indeed what you get, although sometimes Humphrys’ targets and villains are not necessarily what you might expect. For example, he cites the former Labour Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, who had a particular way of speaking which definitely qualifies for the category of ‘mangling’. But instead of chiding Prescott, Humphrys remarks that whilst his English was confused and jumbled to the point of incoherence, it was nonetheless honest, direct and above all, understandable (as long as you didn’t analyse it too much). He always got his message across, and indeed on one occasion at a Party conference, made an impassioned speech that rallied support behind the then leader, the late John Smith.

Instead, Humphrys reserves his ire for English that is clear and understandable, but under the surface, immediately meaningless. Or worse still, the language he dislikes is that which aims to manipulate the listeners’ or readers’ opinions. Sixty-five years after George Orwell identified “Newspeak” as a way to manipulate thought and actions by controlling the language, Humphrys shows how this is alive and flourishing in 21st century Britain.

And then when you think he’s merely had a series of rants as to how things could and should be better, the reader reaches the last chapter, wherein Humphrys considers politicians and then REALLY goes off on one. He stops short of calling for all politicians to be rounded up at gunpoint and marched into a re-education camp for Crimes Against Sentience and Rationality, but only just.

Many of the examples he quotes cite members of the Government of the day, the Blair Labour administration. Those were the people he was most regularly interviewing at the time the book was written; no political bias should be inferred from this.

Things have not improved in the years since this book was written. The recent campaign in the UK connected with the EU referendum showed up politicians on both sides as incapable of deploying either reasoned argument or any sort of marshalling of facts. Instead, both sides set out to manipulate the public into voting in a particular way – one side’s objective was to persuade the electorate to vote against continued membership, but the other managed to convince enough people not to vote for continued membership even though that was not their intention. John Humphrys has not publicly given his opinion of the outcome, either in terms of politics or of the standard of the English used – but I suspect that he would have more harsh things to say.

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