In the late 1980s, or thereabouts, a Portuguese minister was first item on the BBC television news, having complained about being ‘deceived’ by Margaret Thatcher, at an EU meeting. He appeared rather baffled to be in the studio, played down the significance of the remarks, and the presenter quickly moved on to the next item. It is very possible that he merely meant to say that he felt decepção (disappointment) at the then British Prime Minister’s stance.
There exists something of a myth that, because language evolves continually, and many words have multiple or elastic definitions, therefore one can never be precise in language. I assert that there is such a thing as an error of vocabulary; that dictionaries exist for a very good reason, and that it is a professional, polite and smart discipline to know the formal definitions, and use them.
Much of my ghostwriting work is with people for whom English is a second language, and I often have to point out an error of vocabulary, including one that could have major implications, such as the probable translation mistake referred to above. It helps that I have learned other languages, which means that I can empathize with those struggling to find the right word. For an extended period in the early 1990s, I was socializing and working in Spanish. I recall with a wry smile the moment I was on the point of informing my new friends that ‘I am a desk’ (soy escritorio), quickly correcting myself and informing them that I am in fact a writer (soy escritor). Funnier still was my North American friend asking a rather startled Chilean if he could borrow his penis (pene), when he really meant comb (peine).
So, I feel for the many millions of people forced to use English in business meetings and written documents when language is not their first qualification, but self-awareness is important. I do occasionally come across someone whose command of Shakespeare’s tongue is rather less assured than they believe it to be. While they would be horrified if there were a decimal point out of place in their quantitative analysis, they can be remarkably cavalier about language, deploying sentences without verbs, or using a choice of term that is quite wrong. The more professional individuals (I would say this, I know) hire an editor or ghostwriter to be sure of accuracy.
There is a lesson for native speakers too; indeed, for all of us. Using ‘discrete’, when you mean ‘discreet’, ‘illicit’ when you mean ‘elicit’, and ‘officious’ when you mean ‘bureaucratic’, not only betrays one’s ignorance, but can mislead the reader quite seriously. If you are unsure, or sometimes out of pure curiosity about the English language, it’s worth checking that you have, in fact, selected the mot juste (why do we use a French term for that concept?). Dictionaries are free, these days.
- Philip Whiteley is an author and ghostwriter, who pens fiction under the byline PJ Whiteley. There is more information at www.pjwhiteley.com. To support the crowdfunding campaign for his third novel, The Rooms We Never Enter, go to https://unbound.com/books/rooms-we-never-enter/