Misused English Words and Expressions in EU Publications

I am indebted to The Antihippy for pointing me in the direction of Misused English Words and Expressions in EU Publications, a weirdly fascinating and often amusing report that attempts to document the ways in which EU jargon obscures rather than illuminates. You know that feeling when you understand all of the words in a sentence but none of the paragraphs make any sense? This report goes a long way towards explaining that.

I would also like to take the opportunity to reiterate the fact, which I seem not to have made sufficiently clear, that the aim of this document is neither to criticize the work of other EU employees, particularly those who are not native speakers of English, nor to dictate how people should speak or write in the privacy of their own Directorates-General. In addition to providing guidance to readers outside the EU institutions, my comments are mainly designed either for those who, for reasons of character or personal taste, would like their English to be as correct as possible or those who need, or want, their output to be understood by people outside the European institutions, particularly in our two English-speaking member states. This takes up a principle that is clearly set out in the Court of Auditor’s performance audit manual:

‘In order to meet the addressees’ requirements, reports should be drafted for the attention of an interested but non-expert reader who is not necessarily familiar with the detailed EU [or audit] context’.

This means not only that we should not be too technical, but also that we should do our best to avoid assuming that our readers will necessarily be able to decipher our in-house jargon.

Some of the highlights so far include:

ACTORNESS

Explanation

This word is an extraordinary creation that manages to combine a noun of dubious pedigree (see ‘actor’ above) with a suffix (-ness), which, elsewhere in the English language, is only applied to adjectives and participles, producing a result that is both quite impenetrable and slightly childish. Even more unusually, although it is perhaps not actually an EU word as such, because it is not often found in EU publications themselves, it is used almost exclusively in publications about the EU in an attempt to express the concept of ‘the quality of being an actor’. The association between this word and the EU is so strong that, at the time of writing, if we google say ‘US actorness’, we still get a list of entries concerning the EU. Curiously, if we look up ‘Russian actorness’ or ‘French actorness’, Google thinks that we might have just misspelt ‘actress’.

Example

‘EU Actorness in International Affairs: The Case of EULEX Mission in Kosovo, Perspectives onEuropean Politics and Society11.’

Alternatives

participation, involvement, active participation, active involvement.

ANGLO-SAXON

Explanation

In English, the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ is generally used to describe ‘a member of any of the West Germanic tribes (Angles, Saxons, and Jutes) that settled in Britain from the 5th century AD’. Also, particularly in America, it is used to denominate white people, usually of the Protestant faith (‘WASPS’), thus excluding large swathes of the population of that country. It follows that there is no such thing as an Anglo-Saxon country, or, as in the example below, an Anglo-Saxon agency or Anglo-Saxon capitalism. Furthermore, the Anglo-Saxon language ceased to exist in the 12th century (I am ill-informed about Brussels, but the last known speaker in Luxembourg was St Willibrord, 658-73919). This term is particularly inapplicable (and, I gather, irritating for those concerned) when used to describe the Irish, Scots and Welsh, who partly base their national identities on not being Anglo-Saxons, and verges on the ridiculous when used to include West Indians.

Example

‘The Anglo-Saxon group of agencies reflect (sic) the previous dominance of Anglo-Saxon capitalism which was not disrupted by two world wars and the specific operational issues relating to Asian economies.’

Alternatives

‘English-speaking’ when referring to the countries or the people, ‘British’ and ‘American’ (‘Australian’ or whatever) when referring to agencies, capitalism etc. The term may, however, be used if you are talking about something like the (presumed) ‘Anglo-Saxon conspiracy’ and you will often find it used ironically in this way in the British press (usually in inverted commas). However, it has negative connotations and should be avoided.

BOVINE, OVINE, CAPRINE AND PORCINE ANIMALS

Explanation

Bovine animals are ‘any of various chiefly domesticated mammals of the genus Bos, including cows, steers, bulls, and oxen, often raised for meat and dairy products’. They are normally called ‘cattle’ in English. However, whereas the word ‘bovine’ may be recognised by English speakers (often with the meaning ‘sluggish, dull and stolid’), the terms ‘ovine’, ‘caprine’ and ‘porcine’ would only be known to specialists.

Example

‘Commission Decision of 26 July 2004 amending Annexes I and II to Council Decision 79/542/ EEC as regards model certificates relating to the importation of bovine animals for slaughter and bovine, ovine and caprine fresh meat’.

Alternatives

cattle, sheep, goats and pigs respectively.

And I haven’t reached the letter C yet.

There is, of course, a serious point to all this:

[I]nternally, it may often be easier to communicate with these terms than with the correct ones (it is reasonable to suppose that fewer EU officials know ‘outsource’ than ‘externalise’, for example). However, the European institutions also need to communicate with the outside world and our documents need to be translated – both tasks that are not facilitated by the use of terminology that is unknown to native speakers and either does not appear in dictionaries or is shown in them with a different meaning. Finally, it is worth remembering that, whereas EU staff should be able to understand ‘real’ English, we cannot expect the general public to be au fait with the EU variety.

The report is well worth reading and the associated website tells me that a 2015 version is on the way.

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