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English Under Attack

March 2009. If one test of being a first world country is language abuse, South Africa easily holds its own with England and America. Words matter. Phrases, sentences, paragraphs – if they purport to convey what we mean, and certainly what we think, they should be precise and accurate. On promotional materials, adverts, websites, television, radio, and yes, even in newspapers, I despair when I am so often confronted with jargon in place of thought as well as simply egregious mistakes in English. I’m picking on English because that’s the language I know, but I wonder if it would be just as easy to find examples in South Africa’s other ten official languages. Regardless, here are some examples, with comments from the South African bush, but I’m sure readers can apply them to South African urban life:

1. Sustainable. This one is most often abused by developers of residential projects, particularly in the bush. They claim that their water-consuming, vegetation-destroying, rubbish-producing, noise and light-polluting developments are sustainable. Such a claim of course requires no evidence whatsoever and appeals to the eco-sensitive market.

2. Eco, by itself and in all its hyphenated glory. I’ve been involved in eco-tourism, stayed at an eco-lodge, and even walked on an eco-trail. Yes, they are connected to ecology, but do they do less harm to the environment than similar activities? I’m afraid eco-anything is just a pat on the back that says I like the outdoors, I’m an eco-friendly chap.

3. End of the day. This is overused to suggest that something you say sounds wise and conclusive, but rather I think it makes you tedious and pedantic – “At the end of the day, tourists will respond well to our sustainable water system. It’s gravity-fed from a perennial spring to the tanks that then pump it the user.”

4. To be honest with you. Along with “frankly”, this phrase is most often followed by a deception of one kind or another. You’re talking to a property agent who wants to sell you your dream home in the bush. Before long, he says “can I be honest with you?” Yes, yes, you reply, joining his conspiracy for a moment. He is oblivious to your sarcasm as he confidently tells you that the current owner is in great need of a quick sale and cash, and therefore willing to reduce the price slightly.

5. Bespoke. Dictionaries say “custom-made” and “specially made for a particular person.” And maybe it was commonly used in the tailoring business. These days, however, we are asked to purchase a bespoke luxury eco-villa. Please!

6. The apostrophe. One of the smallest symbols we have in our language is abused with much greater frequency than it is properly used. I am disheartened to see adverts offering environmentally sustainable bushveld property’s. Or, suggesting I enjoy it’s eco-idyllic dam. Newspaper and television adverts with its that should be it’s and it’s that should be its are made even more disturbing by the public’s overwhelming indifference.

7. Workshop. This one bothers me for its conversion from noun to verb. Not long ago, we repaired a game drive vehicle in a workshop. Then we called a meeting to discuss the repair and maintenance of all the lodge’s vehicles. Those meetings became workshops where we discussed ideas, seeking other opinions, agreements and understandings – should we paint the vehicles eco-green? Is diesel more sustainable than petro? Somewhere along the way, we started workshopping an idea. I know what it means in this context, I do, I do. I just don’t like it – too pretentious, too cute.

8. Load Shedding. To be honest with you, I picture a high-level Eskom committee seeking a sustainable, eco-friendly phrase that, at the end of the day, would deliver a bespoke electricity schedule to each of us. They’d workshop the phrase until it work’s.