Category Archives: Education

Words Without Meaning

In which The Author calls ‘bullshit’

This morning I needed to go to the Royal Mail sorting office at Aberaman Industrial Estate. While I was at my breakfast meeting with Chris and Alwyn yesterday, the postman had tried to deliver something, and (obviously) failed. When I got home last night the familiar red card was waiting inside the front door.
My first thought was it was my next assignment from Orion Books: my second piece of work for them, but my first real copy-editing project. I was rather disappointed that I might have missed out on a whole day’s (and night’s) work. I went to bed, read for a while, and eventually drifted off.
Anyway, I went down to the sorting office early. My undeliverable item turned out to be the second volume of a trilogy, and not the typescript I was expecting. (I’ll be working on the final instalment.) I’ve emailed my contact at Orion this morning. I’ve asked him to give me a heads-up when the script’s on its way, so I can wait in the house until the postman comes.
I was on the way out of Aberaman Industrial Estate when I spotted a small cluster of advertising boards near the entrance. Among the other businesses operating on the estate there’s a chap that repairs and restores clocks; there’s a guy who fixes computers; there’s a pet food supplier; there’s a garage; there’s a very worthwhile social enterprise which recycles old furniture and household items.
And there’s a company with a three-letter name, and the tagline ‘Complete Solutions.’
I have no idea what this business does. The board gave no further information – just that it offers ‘complete solutions.’
I had to ask myself, ‘Complete solutions to what, exactly?’ Last Sunday’s unstartable crossword? Einstein’s field equations? The Middle East crisis? Our increasing demand for clean, cheap energy?
Could it be a British equivalent of the Institute for Advanced Studies. I can envision the world’s finest minds brainstorming these and a hundred other questions, in the relative seclusion and scenic location of the South Wales Valleys. After all, if it’s good enough for the Royal Opera House, it’s good enough for the likes of Prof. Stephen Hawking!
Then again, instead of a service, they could be dealing in products. Maybe it’s a chemicals manufacturer, selling test tubes full of every soluble compound known to science.
Of all these possibilities, I think the truth is probably more prosaic. The owners have read a little book on marketing, and thrown a couple of buzzwords into the mix for good effect.
I’ve seen another specimen recently, too. It’s some sort of electrical service company. Their vans are painted with a slogan that goes something like ‘Global Service Delivery’, or some such cobblers.
Global? Really? If someone in Mombasa or Pyongyang or Tierra del Fuego called them up to say their lights had gone out, would this little business from Aberaman be able to respond? You can work that out for yourselves.
I hate this sort of management guru bollocks, because it’s purely empty jargon for the sake of it. Our briefings from Waterstones head office became increasingly prone to this sort of shite before I finished working there.
I see it every day, in the newspapers and on websites. I hear it every day on the radio, in political speeches, market analyses, and Radio 4’s large number of pointless programmes about business and the meejah.
In fact, it’s almost a flashback to what I wrote about in ‘Bullshit Detector‘, back when I was a student. Hardly anybody bothers to use language with precision any more. They’re too busy padding out their vacuous verbiage with pretentious piffle, designed to convince fools (i.e. us, the reading and listening people) that what they’re saying has validity and meaning.
That’s why it was interesting to hear a piece on Radio 4 a couple of weeks ago. They were discussing scientific papers, and their comprehensibility (or not). But the whole point of a scientific paper is to present data in an unambiguous, precise and clearly defined way. When one scientist uses the word ‘proton’, every other scientist knows what he (or she) is talking about.
If the general public don’t understand what they’re talking about, that’s a failure of the education system, not a failure on the scientist’s part. Specialised language exists to facilitate clear communication between specialists.
When you go to the doctor and say, ‘My stomach’s been a bit troublesome lately,’ he or she doesn’t expect you to know the anatomical names of the body parts, or the complex physiology of the human digestive system. The doctor knows these things, however. He or she can communicate with others within the medical profession because of it.
But that degree of precision isn’t demanded of us, the patients. We’d be staggered if a doctor did ask to rattle off the names of enzymes and processes. We’d call ‘bullshit’ a few seconds into the consultation.
On the other hand we quite happily swallow the bullshit emanating from the Westminster Bubble, The Apprentice wannabes, advertising executives, management textbooks, self-help manuals, badly-sourced websites, unattributed quotations in newspapers, and so-called ‘lifestyle’ journalism. Personally, I think we need to start calling ‘bullshit’ a lot more often.
After all, I’ve never yet met a doctor who claimed to offer ‘complete solutions.’
Have you?

Adventures in the Book Trade (Part 14)

In which The Author makes a rep blush

Last night I remembered another trade rep who became a good friend while I was working in Dillons/Waterstones. I’d tried to remember her name when I was compiling my original list, but it wouldn’t come to me. Last night I was watching an episode of NCIS which featured a character named Daphne, and the penny finally dropped.
Daphne was the rep for Churchill Livingstone and its related imprints – medical, nursing, and allied health science books. As you can probably imagine, some of the contents were pretty graphic and quite hair-raising, to say the least.
Joely from Times Mirror once told me that the BBC in Bristol had a standing order for each new volume in their very expensive, glossy and frightening Colour Atlas series. I wondered why, and Joely explained that the special effects team on Casualty and Holby City used them as guides, to make their make-up and prosthetics as realistic as possible. They’re not the sort of coffee table books you want lying around when the vicar calls for tea.
Daphne had a rather bizarre sense of humour, which is probably essential when you’re dealing with this sort of material. After a while, you’ve probably seen and heard it all. One day, though, I made her completely stop in her tracks.
We were looking at the Advance Information sheet for a book called Reoperative Urology, and there was a synopsis of the contents. One chapter was entitled simply ‘Priapism’ – and I could tell straight away that Daphne didn’t know what it meant. So I told her.
‘You know sometimes a chap can’t get it up?’ She nodded. ‘Well, priapism is when a chap can’t get it down.’
‘Oh my god, is that real?’ she asked, and blushed to the roots of her hair once she’d managed to stop giggling.
The word almost turned up again a few years later, when I was a student. During a very wet and windy lunch break, I bumped into Tim R., one of our psychology lecturers, wrestling with an umbrella outside the library. I knew how exactly he felt, because my own umbrella had died earlier that morning.
‘It looks as if it’s had its day,’ I remarked.
‘It’s a nuisance,’ Tim replied. ‘It goes up okay, but then it won’t go back down.’
‘You know that’s a recognised medical condition, don’t you?’ I said with a wink.
Tim’s filthy laugh was still echoing off the library walls as I walked away.