Losing sense of duty to truth

Last updated 11:48 19/08/2013
Joe Bennett
Joe Bennett is an English-born travel writer and columnist who lives in New Zealand with dogs. His columns are syndicated in newspapers throughout New Zealand.

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OPINION: "When and how," asked the columnist Bernard Levin, "did we forget to say what we mean? ... our world has sunk full fathom five in euphemisms, and soon the only sounds to be heard will be glug-glug-glug", writes Joe Bennett

Levin wrote those words in 1989, which you might have expected to be a bad year for euphemisms. For it was then that the Soviet Union collapsed and with it a dozen or more People's Republics, all of them torn down by the people. They stormed the palaces, ripped up their leaders' gold lame pyjamas and implied by doing so that they would prefer it, on balance, if words meant what they said.

Levin died in 2004, rest his good bones, and for his last few cruel years he suffered from Alzheimer's disease. So he may never have had to ring an internet provider.

A provider used to be a father who brought bacon home, but it is now anyone or anything that does anything. The schools I once taught at have become education providers - as though education were deliverable by truck - and the Ministry of Health now boasts (and believe me it boasts like a 5-year-old) a Health Provider Index.

Imagine Bernard Levin towards the end of his life, one foot already teetering on the grave's lip, visiting one of these indexed health providers. "Go on, then," he says, "provide me some", at which point the provider looks puzzled and Levin, for all his frailty, bursts out laughing.

A petty point? I don't think so and neither would Levin. Words have meanings and if we ignore them, glug-glug-glug. Health is health and only good genes, good luck, red wine and laughter can provide it. I doubt it will be long before columnists like Levin are known as columnar providers, or even - don't mock me now, you know that worse has happened - columnar solution providers. (If every outfit that offers solutions provided solutions there wouldn't be a problem left in the world.)

Such language is a form of pomposity. Simple Anglo-Saxon nouns are inflated into a string of Latinate abstractions that give the mind nothing to grasp. They aim to impress but they only obfuscate. And thus the world loses precision and with it a sense of duty to the truth.

Internet providers don't provide the internet. (Although I don't know who does. Like God, the beast seems to be both nowhere and everywhere.) What they provide, at a price, is access to it, but the term is just about acceptable if (a) you have no ear for language and (b) they do provide that access. Last weekend my provider didn't. So I rang it up.

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To my surprise I was greeted by a woman so full of lusty gusto that she seemed on the cusp of an orgasm.

"Here at . . . " she gasped (despite temptation I won't name the company - it is the crime rather than the criminals that are my subject), "we want you to love your internet".

Well, for one thing, I don't believe for a minute that the company's overriding ethos is its desire to foster love in its customers, rather than make money; for a second thing, love and the internet go together like fish and haberdashery; for a third, since the voice was recorded, the company had no idea whether it was addressing a columnist of stainless virtue or a slavering child-pornographer; and, for a fourth thing, note how commerce is perfectly capable of Anglo- Saxon monosyllables when it wants to tell emotional fibs.

But the Anglo-Saxon didn't last. Mademoiselle Rapture was succeeded by the lifeless voice of a computer programmer. "Our server," he droned, "is currently . . . "

Well, how would you complete the sentence? Down? Kaput? As dead as a fish on the slab? Exactly. All three are simple, lucid and honest and therefore wrong. "Our server," said the gloomster, "is currently experiencing issues".

How have we reached the stage when the speaker can say such a sentence seriously and the listener hear it without reaching for his gun? A server is an electronic device. It is incapable of experiencing anything. The only person doing any experiencing was me, the customer, experiencing no service.

As for issues, well, they're the flip side of solutions. While solution is the vogue term for something indefinably good, an issue is the vogue euphemism for something indefinably bad, something that the speaker is too scared to name or accept responsibility for.

Glug, indeed, good Bernard (whose mortality has been experiencing issues these last nine years), glug-glug-glug.

- The Southland Times

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