Tamsin Constable

Disguise, distract, drown, dazzle

Got something to hide? Here’s how to hoodwink your readers. Disguise the problem with a cloak of jargon. Dazzle your readers with impenetrable language. Drown it in verbosity. Distract with gobbledygook.

The UK Government Department responsible for universities follows these guidelines, the Independent reported this week. MPs have accused the department of peppering its reports with “jargon-riddled phrases” and “euphemisms deflecting likely failure”.

The Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills, say MPs on the Commons select committee that monitors it, uses jargon to mask the fact that it has no clear idea about its policy direction. Publications include “impenetrable” language “peppered with jargon”. Its annual report, for example, includes this sentence: “An overarching national improvement strategy will drive up quality and performance underpinned by specific plans for strategically significant areas of activity, such as workforce and technology.”

When challenged to translate this paragraph, Ian Whatmore, the Department’s Permanent Secretary, admitted that he couldn’t. Here’s my attempt: “We need a way of doing things better. This will help us do things better. In particular, we plan to do things better for workers and technology.” As often happens, once you drill down through jargon, what’s left can often be all puff and no substance. Ian Whatmore admitted that the annual report was “inaccessible.” He said he’d bring in the Plain English people sooner next year.

Off I scoot.

Sweet and crumbly

I’ve just got to give my friend Justine Cather (nee Adams, for any school friends who might read this) a mention, because her spectacular company Burnt Sugar was featured on this week’s BBC Radio 4 Food Programme. After college, Justine worked as a waitress while she tried to figure out what to do. Her mum, meanwhile, was busy selling hand-beaten fudge from a little shop in Lyme Regis. I seem to remember it was called something like ‘Rose Cottage Fudge’. The packaging was a white paper bag printed with a line-drawing of – guess what – a country cottage. Justine noticed that loyal tourists kept coming back to the shop for more fudge. She learnt how to cook the stuff herself, then started flogging it further afield, at food fairs etc. She changed the packaging, making it so sumptuous that glossy magazines photographed it on editorial pages. The fudge, now called Burnt Sugar, uses fair-trade sugar. It’s certified carbon-neutral. The design and branding are first-class. And Justine’s set up a book club which supports Book Aid International, with books chosen each month by heavy hitters such as Alexander McCall Smith, Mariella Frostrup and Maeve Binchy.

On the programme, the presenter watched someone called Andy beating boiling sugar in a massive cauldron. Justine mentioned in passing that “each beater has their own little style of beating”. The presenter missed a trick here. What styles? How do the styles evolve? Is there some kind of ‘beating meme’, a cultural inheritance of fudge-beating styles? Is there a beating hierarchy, with beginner beaters, better beaters and chief beaters? Can you tell a beater by the patterns in the fudge? There’s a photo on the site tagged ‘Bobby doing a twirl’, so I think I might be right.

Then the presenter offered Justine some of her own home-made fudge for some expert feedback. Justine took a piece, paused, then said: “I can’t actually get my teeth through it.”