10 January 2023

Mr Packenham and the Space Industry

 Britain's entry into the Space Industry has (just like the dear Tower of Babel) suffered a set-back. The attempt to send up a rocket, with lots of sweet little satellites, came to naught. And the attempt was made from Newquay Airport, just up the hill from the ancient Carmelite tranquillity of Lanhearne!

When I was about eleven, I was being taught English by a Mr Packenham (nickname Pacco). I used, in one of my essays, the verb "commence". He instructed me always, if possible, to use an English word, such as "begin", rather than to reach for important-sounding French words. 

When the important-sounding people in Newquay (they are something, I think, to do with Virgins ... or should I write Maidens?) had to reveal that their rocket hadn't worked, they announced that it had suffered an anomaly. Poor Poppets.

I could never have worked in the Space Industry.

Thank you, Mr Packenham, ubicumque sis, for all that you taught me. I haven't forgotten it or you.


J N said...

I very much enjoy your instructive and entertaining blog and I find myself agreeing with almost all you write. However, I do not believe that it is necessarily better to use so-called "simpler" or Anglo-Saxon words, rather than those derived from French or Latin. That is just a made up "rule" similar to the never splitting an infinitive "rule". It is entirely unclear why "commence" is necessarily inferior to "begin". In any case, as I know you are aware, English has very few (if any) true synonyms and different words carry different connotations, so to use one word in preference for another might easily be the result of deliberate lexical or stylistic choice.

Besides all that, I note that you use the word "tranquillity". Surely, following your precept, you ought to have used "peace" which is simpler and, although derived from "pax", was certainly an Anglo Saxon word: "pais". (Is that an "ad hominem" argument?) However, I should defend your use of "tranquillity" because, in the context it seems to me to be not only the more precise word, but also the more apt word because of its connotations.

I can understand your objection to the phrase "suffered an anomaly", if indeed the rocket did just fail, but that is an entirely different matter since the language in that case would be designed to hide or obscure something.

william arthurs said...

I like plain English too but, speaking as a professional person, I always thought the Plain English Campaign did plain English a disservice when they would give a Gobbledygook Award to a perfectly serviceable piece of technical writing that is unintelligible to a layperson precisely because it uses the jargon of a particular profession or occupation. A leading cause of 'insignificant speech', as Hobbes calls it, is, I have observed, poor metaphors derived from the jargon of professions that have temporarily risen in public esteem for some or other reason. For example, when the noble science of politics was more highly regarded than it is today, you had the idea of the 'ship of state'... and a ship needs a Great Helmsman, surely? In the present day you have medicine, from which is derived the dubious metaphor of 'mental health'. And information technology, where you have humans as robots and their brains as computers... in this instance, earlier traffic had been in the other direction, the concept of 'computer memory', 'Random Access' or 'Read Only', being derived as an inexact figure of speech, from human memory.

All that being said, it is still a shame that the mission anomaly led to a negative situation.

J N said...

I did not keep a copy of my last post, but I think I carelessly mentioned "splitting participles" when I should have written "splitting infinitives".

Perhaps you will be kind enough to correct this for me.

Thank you.

The Ancient Professor said...

The Scottish philosopher/economist Adam Smith also preferred English words to those borrowed from the French, or so I have read.
Apparently preferring unfold to develop.

PM said...

William Arthurs has a point: there is a proper place for jargon when precision is important. Terry Eagleton gives some amusing examples in his 'After Theory'. Most of us don't mind if the doctor asks 'how's the old tummy today?' But if we saw him writing 'old tummy playing up a bit' in his case notes, we should begin to worry about his professional competence. Or if I overheard air traffic control telling the pilot to just sort of drift down to the right a bit, I would start pondering the Four Last things and making an act of contrition.

But Fr Hunwicke is surely right. Use of pretentious pseudo-jargon when it is not necessary adds nothing but opacity to a statement. Postmodern 'theorists' are among the worst offenders.

PM said...

By the way, was your teacher connected to Lord Longford by any chance? I think his family spell the name without the 'c'.

GOR said...

Many years ago I was reading an IBM manual and came across an instruction which said: "take a pair of dykes and..." Once I had stopped laughing I pointed it our to my IBM Rep. who informed me there was more than one meaning for the word. Words have meanings, sometimes humorous ones.

dunstan said...

At the age of 14 I tried to impress my new English teacher by using the word 'manumission'. I had decided that I needed to expand my vocabulary and was entering in my diary words which I thought I should know.
Mr Hadrill (nickname 'Brut' because of the overwhelming smell of aftershave which he he brought into the classroom) informed me that it was not good English to use words derived from Latin when there were perfectly good alternative Anglo-Saxon words.