Easytalk: what’s the point of long words?

Vivian Cook  
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Announcements heard over loudspeakers in airports and planes have their own characteristics, exemplified in Jay Leno’s joke that, during a flight, President Clinton had to return the attendant to her full upright and locked position. Here are some recent everyday specimens, collected on my commuting trip between Colchester and Newcastle.

This delay is due to the late arrival of the inbound aircraft.

Does this really mean what it appears to mean: ‘this plane is late because it’s late’?

        This flight is now available for priority boarding at gate 88.

Simple English translation: ‘If you have paid extra, you can now board’. Why say available for boarding rather than you can board?

Passengers who have purchased speedy boarding are now invited to board through gate 88.

A variation on the last one, notable for purchased rather than bought and for invited rather than asked or requested. How exciting to be invited to something!

Would any passengers still wishing to travel on this flight please go to gate 88 where the aircraft awaits its on-time departure?

Simple English translation: ‘You lot in the bar, get a move on’. But there’s a strange overtone to the idea of people wishing to travel rather than passengers having tickets and planes waiting expectantly to leave; I have a compulsion to go to the gate and say ‘Yes please, I know I’m booked to Newcastle but  I’d love to fly to Rio’.

In the unlikely event of having to use a slide please leave your hand baggage on board.

Simple English translation: ‘If you have to use a slide, don’t take your bag with you’. The implication of In the unlikely event … is: ‘Don’t worry, it may never happen’ but it is pretty cumbersome. What’s wrong with if?

We do have a non-smoking policy on-board and we would like to thank you in advance for observing this.

Simple English translation; ‘Don’t smoke as it’s illegal’. Why should we be thanked for obeying the law of the land? Thank you in advance for not driving on the right?

We are commencing our final descent in to Stansted.

Simple English translation: ‘We will start descending soon’. Why commence rather than start?

Written safety instructions are equally distinctive.

FASTEN SEATBELT WHILST SEATED

‘Don’t put your seatbelt on if you’re standing up?’ Presumably this means ‘Keep your belt on all the time in your seat’ but fasten is a one-off event, keep on is a continuous one. Why use whilst, the 5839th word in frequency in the BNC, rather than while, the 174th? Why use all capital letters when research shows a mixture of capitals and lower case is more legible?

Buses have similar motifs

PLEASE REFRAIN FROM SMOKING ON THIS VEHICLE

Why not ‘No smoking?’ Why refrain and vehicle? All the passengers know it’s a bus.

Doubtless there are technical or legal reasons for the exact wording of some announcements; they have to give a reason for the delay but don’t want to admit the engine fell off the plane you were supposed to be on. The pilots are usually much more informative about reasons for delay, such as food poisoning in the crew that was supposed to have flown the flight.

The underlying reason why announcements and notices have these odd forms is that the organisation wants to sound ultra-respectable. Given the choice between a short word like start and a longer word like commence, they choose the longer one; given a choice between a simple expression like if and a complex form like in the event of, they prefer the complex. It’s a matter of elevating their language to a posher, more formal form.

Are they right or wrong? Many passengers doubtless expect this extra level of formality from airlines; it reassures them that the airline is responsible and respectable. Take a deviant announcement like one I once heard, If you smoke in the toilets, we will open the back door of the plane and throw you out. This may sound flippant and unprofessional, even if rather more human.

While the quaintness of Easytalk is easy to poke fun at, it can be dangerous if it results in passengers not understanding the safety regulations, particularly those who are not native speakers of English. You need a higher level of English vocabulary to understand commence, illuminate, brace and whilst and to follow the construction in the event of rather than if.

For many years the Plain English Campaign has been exhorting organisations to use clear English in official documents and forms. They advise ‘Keep your sentences short’, ‘Prefer short words’, and ‘Prefer active verbs’, all typical advice in style manuals for a hundred years. Plain English provide a list of words to avoid and suggest what to put in their place; for example, use before rather than prior to, keep to rather than comply with and end rather than terminate. In a random sample of their list, the undesirable words have on average 3.8 syllables, the preferred words 1.7. Often the preferred form has a preposition, speed up rather than accelerate, find out rather than ascertain.

The distinction between short and long words reflects the different historical strata in the English vocabulary. Words that come from Old English pre‑Norman Conquest tend to be short: buy, start. Those that come from French or Latin tend to be longer: purchase, commence. The legacy of the Norman occupation is that the longer words seem higher status or more educated, as they were associated with the language spoken by the elite rulers, French, or the language spoken by the learned, Latin.

If longer words still have this association for today’s speakers of English, why should we object to it in announcements? People being thanked in advance for observing a non-smoking policy may appreciate its pompous tone more than the informal Don’t smoke. There’s no intrinsic reason to choose between purchase or buy apart from a prejudice for or against long words.

Provided of course that there is no difference in meaning between the short word and the long. In some of the Plain English examples, one word cannot be substituted for another because they mean slightly different things. Is accelerate (OED to ‘quicken’, i.e. increase speed continuously) really the same as the Plain English endorsed speed up (OED ‘increasing the speed or working rate of a thing’, i.e. to get to a faster rate of speed)? Is conclusion (OED ‘final result, upshot’) quite the same as the preferred end (OED ‘One of the two extremities of a line’)? Because of the many meanings and overtones that go with a word, substituting a shorter word for a longer word or vice versa can change the meaning in many ways. According to the science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon ‘There are no synonyms. There are no two words that mean exactly the same thing’, a sentiment that most linguists agree with.

Indeed for the airline passenger who is not a native speaker of English some of the longer words may be easier to understand precisely because of their links to Latin and Romance languages. The meaning of commence should be easy to work out for a French speaker who knows commencer, a Spanish speaker who knows comenzar or an Italian who knows cominciare, all derived from Latin, compared with the opaque word start descended from Old English. 

The use of long latinate words has then split people for hundreds of years. Some think them erudite and profound, some pretentious, unnecessary and comic. Part of the Arts and Crafts movement in the late nineteenth century was a return to the roots in Old English. The most radical advocate was the Dorset dialect poet William Barnes, whose overall principle was to rid English of words that did not come from Old English. Here is a samples of his numerous inventions:

music > gleecraft                      
            omnibus > folkwain
            photograph > sun-print
            ignorant > loreless
           botany > wortlore  
           grammar > speechcraft
      
    exit > outgate 
        
century > yearhundred

His version of ‘A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country’ was ‘A foresayer is not unworthy, out-taken in his land’.

See also Official words of praise