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Chrissie Maher's speech to the European Commission

Chrissie speaks to the European Union

Well, here I am, Daniel in the lion's den. And I'm here by invitation, which is more than Daniel could have said. Thanks for inviting me. Daniel was famous of course for his dreams. Like Daniel, I have a dream. My dream is that there will be a jargon-free European community, where every word which flows from the EC will be understood by people like me.

But who am I? Well, I'm a grandmother of eight, born in Liverpool. I couldn't read properly until I left school. When I could read, I realised mastering the alphabet was only a small part of the puzzle of understanding the written word. The biggest obstacle to understanding was not whether I could determine that 't-h-a-n-k' spelled the word thank, but whether I could determine what the word 'notwithstanding' meant. And let me tell you, 'notwithstanding' was not the worst of it. There were words like 'inter alia', 'lien on goods' and 'pro-rata' to really give me a headache! Then, to add insult to injury, having got the headache because of jargon, I had to struggle with the instructions on the aspirin box. Patient information on pharmaceutical products is so important and yet so much of it is written in language which seems designed to be as unhelpful as possible to the patient. It used to make my headaches worse anyway!

I was confused, and people like me had to struggle daily with a diet of indecipherable rubbish. If we applied for social security benefits or tried to register for a job, we were faced with endless forms written in language that we just couldn't make sense of.

Information was then, and still is, power. I came from a community as robbed of power as any community could be. Without true understanding, democracy doesn't exist. When I was still in my early twenties, I decided to use my newly found literacy skills and started a newspaper called the Tuebrook Bugle. Not a very sophisticated title, but neither were our readers. The Bugle was a best-seller - not a Booker Prize winner, but a big hit, written for the people, by the people. The Bugle told us what was going on in words we could understand. Suddenly the people of Tuebrook were not as powerless as they once thought they were. Suddenly trees got planted, drains got cleaned, better books appeared on the shelves in the library and councillors were called to account for their actions.

But the thing which really started the fire inside me was an experience I had as a community worker. I had to visit two retired schoolteachers struggling on their rather meagre pensions. I was there to help them fill in a government form which would get them a heating allowance. It was a bitter north-of-England winter and they could not afford to turn on their central heating. I could not understand the form well enough to fill it in in their home and promised I would come back and try some more the following day. But, when I returned the next day, I watched an ambulance carry away those two lovely ladies. They were suffering from hypothermia they said - or in plain English - cold. They both died within a week. They died because of words, unfamiliar words, words that had no place in public information. They weren't thick, stupid or ill educated, just faced with unfamiliar words.

If I was angry with those who wrote officialese before, after this episode I was furious. So furious that I took myself off to the House of Commons in London and shredded as many of these forms as I could get my hands on. I wanted to bring home the message of disgust at the jargon they were responsible for and the price those two old ladies had paid - to say nothing of the trees which had died to give life to the dross. Plain English Campaign was born.

I don't relate this story here to pluck at your heartstrings. I'm telling you this because I want you to know what fuels Plain English Campaign. I'm sixty now and if ever I think 'Oh I'll take it easy now, fight the weeds in my garden instead of jargon', I just think about those two frail women, freezing to death because neither me nor they could understand some words on a page. The fact that they died of cold became the spark which ignited the fire which still burns. And if it's ever in danger of dwindling, I just remember that jargon can kill.

So, what can I say about what comes out of the EC? When I told one of my friends that I had been invited by you to help 'Fight the FOG', she said 'they might as well have asked you to knit it'. If you're not familiar with this saying, you can easily work out that trying to knit fog is a physical impossibility. Well what the hell, I've always enjoyed a challenge. But seriously, I don't share her pessimism. I am heartened by your efforts to tackle the problem. I'm here in good faith to tell you how big I believe the problem is, and what we can do together to fight this man-made mist. Well, you've got a pretty tough job on your hands really. What with gums being called:

  • 'mucous membranes of the oral cavity';

and pigs being referred to as :

  • 'grain-consuming units';

how are we expected to understand what these things mean? Is it any wonder when some EU bright spark came up with the idea of labelling the ingredients of cosmetics in Latin! This was a serious suggestion from the EU's Consumer Policy Unit and, although the media treated the story as a humorous one, there are serious implications for some. Heaven help anyone with an allergy to peanuts who hasn't had a classical education - they die!

Jargon isn't a disease which just affects the European Commission.

A large retail store in the UK recently advertised for:

  • 'an ambient replenishment assistant'.

That's a shelf stacker, by the way! A council in the south of England decided to redefine Christmas lights as:

  • 'festive embellishments of a illuminary nature'.

There are no housewives in Yorkshire, a hospital there has re-named housewives:

  • 'domestic service engineers'.

You will be sad, as I was, to learn that there are no trees in Hinksey Park in Oxford. Apparently, the good people of that city only have:

  • 'indigenous vegetation'.

to offer shade from the midday sun.

It's everywhere. In America, there are no poor people. They are merely:

  • 'economically challenged'.

As a 'chronologically gifted person' - old person that is - in fact a grandmother of eight, it's very reassuring to know I can push my grandchildren round the park in:

  • 'a wheeled vehicle designed for the transport in a seated or semi-recumbant position of one or two babies or infants who are placed inside a body of boat- or box-like shape, but does not include any carry-cot or transporter therefor.'

That's a pram, for the uninitiated.

So, as you can see, this disease pretty well affects the whole world. But there is a cure and it's called GROIT. Yes it's an acronym and it stands for GET RID OF IT! Jargon is an interest-killer. Well it turns me off anyway.

The EU struggles to make some of its information interesting. Trying to write about fruit farming and the Common Agriculture Policy in an interesting way must be difficult. But the clumsiness of the language, the acronyms, the verbiage and the tedium surrounding every subject are appalling and we are right to fight it.

'Bureaucratese' - even 'Eurocratese' - is pretty dire. 'It has been decided that ...' is one of the most appalling phrases in the English language. Who decided? The impersonality, the sheer arrogance of that statement, makes me want to tear up the paper it is written on! I'm not the only one either. And there's more...

  • 'A person whose application is refused is entitled to seek further clarification from...'

I think that means 'You may ask X to explain why he refused your application'. I will spare your blushes and I won't tell you which EC department it came from:

Two essential points arise from what I have just said are central to plain English. Be personal and stay active. Use 'I', 'we' and 'you', and not titles and other paraphernalia, and use the active, not the passive, voice of a verb. It is surprising how much of a difference those little changes make to the tone and sense of what you are writing. And just because the passive has been used in the original language, that doesn't mean that you have to use the passive in English.

I say nothing about whether English should be used as a common language in Europe - I'd be hanged. But its wide usage throughout the world lends to its abuse. In his book 'Shooting an Elephant, Politics and the English Language', George Orwell wrote:

'The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.'

Don't squirt ink! Be sincere, keep your words short and use plain English.

Now I thought I'd tell you a bit about how we use the 'carrot and stick' approach to help encourage the use of plain English. Every year in the UK, we hold our good and bad awards ceremony. So far we have always given our awards to UK entries sent into us from the public. This is what we give to those who write jargon and gobbledygook. When Plain English Campaign first started almost 30 years ago, I used to deliver a pound of fresh tripe on a silver platter. People didn't always take kindly to it I can tell you. I've been chased down many a road after turning up at the posh headquarters of an insurance company or a bank clutching my 'offal' offering. Pardon the pun!

These days we find that more and more of the winners of the Golden Bull awards actually come to our ceremony. Many find it more acceptable when the tripe is on the inside.

We also find that many of those who first come to us as Golden Bull winners soon learn the errors of their ways and eventually go on to earn Crystal Marks on their company documents.

In December 1998, we might decide to expand our horizons and look across the channel to Europe. It's up to you which one might end up being Brussels-bound. But I throw down a challenge to you now. Send us a dozen (oops that's not metric is it?) of your documents and let them stand or fall at the hurdles - no not hurdles, standards, yes standards set by Plain English Campaign. There, I've issued the challenge and it's up to you whether or not you take it up.

I am not one of those pedants who run a mile at the sight of a split infinitive or one of those dangling participles. Sir Winston Churchill was once criticised for ending a sentence with a preposition. His response was typically stout. He wrote back to his critic saying:

  • 'This is the sort of English up with which I will not put'.

I think Winston and I would have got on. Now I know that you are only translators and are stuck with a poor original version. Speaking of translations, we ate in a restaurant last night where the wine list boasted the following:

  • 'our wines leave you nothing to hope for'

Actually - they weren't that bad at all! I'm sure that in the mother tongue the boast would have been quite different, and I'm equally sure they would have been grateful to any one of you providing them with a better translation. It was quite a high-class restaurant. I know because there were 'wooden interdental stimulators' on the tables. That's toothpicks to you and me.

But you know, I'm from a country where our capital city, London, once had the dubious honour of being internationally known as the foggiest city in the world. We managed to clean that up eventually and I'm sure that together we can clean up the man-made fog here.

When Tony Blair started his European Presidential term of office, he was asked the following question at the end of summit press conference.

"Will you accept the challenge which the Dutch confess to failing in Amsterdam in June, to use the exceptional drafting abilities both of the Foreign Office and the Plain English Campaign to consolidate the current hotchpotch of European treaties into one citizen-friendly document beginning with 'we, the people of Europe'?" His reply was unequivocal. He said:

"I am tempted just to say yes, is that clear enough for you? I certainly agree with you though, we should make our documents ... more comprehensible to the average citizen in the street, and if we can do that ... there will be a loud cheer from around all the streets of Europe, I am sure."

So, we're here with the blessing of Tony Blair, who has expressed his wish to see European documents written in ways that ordinary people can understand. He said there would be cheers in the streets of Europe. There'd be a big cheer in New Mills, the HQ of Plain English Campaign, I can tell you.

It would be wonderful indeed, if everything which came out of the European Commission was written in crystal-clear English, crystal-clear Spanish, crystal-clear French and so on. It would indeed be a jewel in Tony Blair's European presidential crown if a European treaty or a European directive earned the Plain English Campaign's Crystal Mark.

We are soon to be united by a common currency. Let us be united in a common commitment to crystal-clear communication and ban FOG from all public information that we have to sign (sometimes with threats of jail) to say we have read, understood and will keep to.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart and I carry a thank you for listening from grassroots people everywhere.

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