Mark Forsyth

Why do people talk nonsense in public

Put an ordinary person in front of a microphone, and they start to talk in pompous clichés

Why do people talk nonsense in public
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There’s something about the word located that makes me want to slit throats. Not that I’m a naturally furious chap, not a bit of it. But located makes me want to shoot a puppy. The safety instructions are ‘located’ at the end of the carriage. The life-jackets are ‘located’ under the seats. They needn’t be located. They just are. The life-jackets are under the seats. The information desk is on the ground floor. I want to take a huge red pen to the world and start deleting.

The curious thing is that everybody — even health-and-safety officers — can talk properly in a pub. By properly I don’t mean that they’ll necessarily use the subjunctive perfectly or distinguish between disinterested and uninterested. What I mean is that in a pub, surrounded by the happy clink of glasses, a chap will say: ‘I saw a man get out of his car and run off up Easton Street.’ Simple sentences like that. But put them on Crimewatch and they forget how to speak.

Crimewatch is a splendid place to watch the demise of the English language. The police are never looking for people, only for individuals. ‘We are trying to locate three individuals…’ As opposed, of course, to composite beings. If the sex of the individual is known, they become a male or a female; but never, perish the thought, a man or woman. Men don’t commit crimes, males do. These individuals do not walk or run or drive or skip or any of the things that mere people might do. They proceed. Sometimes they proceed on foot. Sometimes they proceed in an easterly direction. They were never seen, only sighted. All of them are trying to make good their escape. That’s why the police are appealing to members of the public. Who, in the name of all that’s pleonastic, is not a member of the public?

But these are ordinary people. Put them back in the pub and they’ll tell you that they saw a murderer. It’s only when they feel that they ought to talk properly that their language degenerates. That’s the perverse pressure of saying something in public.

Pity, then, the poor politician, who spends half his life on television. Is it any wonder that he talks about cutting indictments and hardworking families (child labour being admirable)? He is no worse than those he represents. It’s just that to him problems and needs aren’t real, they’re very real — a phrase that would send any philosopher running for the woods. Whenever you hear ‘There’s a very real question here of…’ imagine for a while what a faintly real question would be, and for that matter what an unreal question might look like. ‘Is middle C competent?’ ‘How much does Tuesday weigh?’

The list of meaningless political clichés is endless, and much better writers than I have gone over them. Pressure is ratcheted up, claims are disputed, lashes are backed and everything happens up and down the country. They trot out the tired old clichés, which is itself a tired old cliché. Anything I could add would be Too Little Too Late.

The result of all this, and it is an important result, is that politics ceases to mean anything. It has become the flight safety instructions telling you that your life-jackets are located next to your tax credits. It is the voice of the nice lady telling you to ‘Please remember to take all your personal belongings with you when you leave the train and we’re introducing a raft of measures that are designed to tackle the problem of rising violence among disadvantaged families and protect the most vulnerable in society.’ As opposed to the most vulnerable people outside society.

And nobody listens.

The only politician who manages to avoid such clichés is Boris Johnson. It’s not so much that he speaks the language of the common man — terms like procrustean and inanition are rarely heard in the saloon bar — but that he does not speak a language that we have learnt to ignore. It’s the equivalent of the air stewardess reciting a dirty limerick about the emergency exits. The result is that he wins every popularity poll. A poll by YouGov had him beating Cameron, Miliband and Clegg on every political virtue from honesty to good-in-a-crisis. He boosts the Tory vote not by having noticeably different opinions, but by expressing them differently.

When I hear the word located, I turn off. We all do. And if I’m ever on a plane that actually crashes I will have no idea how to inflate my life-jacket. And as I sink forlornly into the briny depths, my last thoughts will not be of home or England or God. No, I shall be thinking that if the emergency nozzle had only been hidden or lurking or skulking, any verb other than located, I would have lived.