It doesn't take much to make John Humphrys angry. On the basis of his most recent book, Lost for Words: The Mangling and Manipulating of the English Language (Hodder, £7.99), it would seem that there isn't much that makes him angrier than bad language. Not swearing - he likes swearing - but bad use of language. The 'essentials' of 'good English', in his view, are that it should be 'clear, simple, plain and unambiguous'. His distaste for ambiguity sits uneasily with his professed support for an English teacher who would like to spend her time reading Keats and Donne with her pupils; still, there's more than one type of ambiguity, and it's clear enough which type Humphrys has in mind: politicians rather than poets are his targets. He also hates 'management speak': 'Each specialist library will be the product of a community of practice of all those interested in knowledge mobilisation and localisation of their domain' is one of his examples. In his introduction to James Cochrane's Between You and I: A Little Book of Bad English (Icon, £6.99), Humphrys says that a young man who used the phrase 'proactively networking' when applying for a job at the BBC ought to have been 'publicly executed'.
LRB 22 September 2005 | PDF Download