Another casualty of language's evolution

KARL DU FRESNE
Last updated 05:00 21/09/2012

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Karl du Fresne

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OPINION: A moment's silence, please, while we mourn the loss of yet another good English word.

"Majority" means the greater number, as in: "a majority of MPs voted in favour" or "the majority of New Zealanders support retention of the monarchy".

It is specifically related to numbers. Yet increasingly, we hear and read such solecisms as "the sun shone for the majority of the day" or "the majority of the work was done by nightfall".

Does it matter?

Yes, because the English language depends on precision.

Our laws rely on it, because interpretation of the law hinges on the words used.

We rely on it to hold our politicians accountable, since we judge them by the statements they make. The moment meanings become blurred, the language is robbed of clarity.

Then again, if you define the world by the latest exploits of Jaime Ridge or who proceeds into the finals of New Zealand's Got Talent, the degradation of English is probably of no consequence whatsoever. Why worry?

Time was when a test match between the All Blacks and the Springboks was a veritable clash of the titans - an encounter eagerly anticipated by rugby fans in both countries.

But those  were the days when tests between the two countries were rare occasions, occurring at intervals of several years.

The infrequency served only to heighten the tension and excitement when the two sides came together. Test matches are now so common,  even rugby journalists struggle to maintain the pretence that they are anything special.

Responsibility for the degrading of test rugby can be laid at the feet of rugby's corporate masters, who insist on wringing every last dollar from the sport.

Perhaps they haven't heard of Aesop's fable about the goose that laid the golden egg.

My fellow columnist Terry Hall drew attention this week to the fact that the private hospital group previously known as Wakefield Health has a new name: Acurity.

What is this pretentious, made-up name supposed to represent?

Your guess is as good as mine.

What was wrong with the old one? Nothing, as far as we can tell. The fashion for gimmicky corporate names began in the 1980s when the Bank of New South Wales and the Commercial Bank of Australia merged to form Westpac, which sounded like a meat processing company.

Later in the decade, the LD Nathan Group launched the retail chain Deka, a name with all the poetic resonance of an acronym for a Soviet tractor factory.

Several stores formerly owned by James Smith, a company name regarded with great affection by generations of Wellingtonians, were among those that suffered the indignity of being rebranded.

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Since then the trend has gathered momentum. National Mutual became AXA, Broadcast Communications Ltd became Kordia (derived, we're told, from "accordia", meaning "harmony") and Norwich Union became Aviva (a pleasant name that also happens to be the name of my daughter-in-law - but what has it got to do with insurance?).

According to its website, the former Wakefield Health changed its name to Acurity "to better reflect its own unique identity as owner of three private surgical hospitals and its investment in other health related organisations across the country".

Which would be all very well if there were such a word as acurity, but there isn't. We are left to conclude the board of Wakefield Health was smart-talked into the name change by a clever advertising agency or PR firm, which no doubt trousered a handsome fee for its trouble.

Clint Eastwood was rightly lampooned for his bizarre speech at the Republican presidential convention. There's a lesson here. Unless they're prepared to put themselves on the line by actually standing for office, as Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger did, actors and other celebrities should stay well away from politics.

It's a misuse of power for people to exploit their popularity as actors, writers, artists or musicians in order to exert political influence over impressionable fans. Eastwood is no more qualified to comment on politics than a cab driver.

We are not immune to the Eastwood syndrome here in New Zealand, although our own celebrities invariably line up in support of the Left. An example is the "We're better than that" campaign, currently running against a government bill aimed at deterring people smugglers from bringing their human cargoes to New Zealand.

This has attracted the support of such luminaries as Dave Dobbyn, Michele A'Court, Jeremy Elwood and Oscar Kightley, who seem not to grasp that discouraging asylum seekers is actually a humanitarian act, given the number who have drowned trying to get to Australia.

 

- The Dominion Post

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