Tamsin Constable

Could Plain English have prevented recession?

A fifth of us would SWITCH BANKS if they provided information that was more user-friendly. That’s what a survey released yesterday found.

This is not just about clear language. It’s about financial institutions making sure that their members and customers understand complex financial transactions, so that those customers can make financial decisions that are fully informed. It’s about financial inclusion.

Decisions that may have been different to those that caused the current economic collapse.

The National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA) commissioned the survey with EBS Building Society. NALA Director Inez Bailey says, “For the last six months Irish people have been bombarded with complex financial information. Lack of plain English and the regular use of fancy jargon is one of the greatest barriers to understanding financial information.”

The survey also shows that most people (89 per cent) questioned would prefer banks to use more plain English. In recognition of this, the EBS has published a new, free guide, The ‘A-Z Pocket Guide to Financial Terms. It includes more than 500 definitions, including phrases that have cropped up frequently in the media in recent months, such as ‘sub-prime lending’, ‘receivership’ and ‘recapitalisation’.

Inez Bailey added that the new guide “will go some way to help people better understand both their own personal finance issues and the current issues that are having an impact on our economy”.

You can download a copy of the guide from www.ebs.ie.

Birthday up Ingleborough

We celebrated – well, me, basically – by abandoning our desks (hurray for the freelance life!) and climbing Ingleborough, the second highest peak in the Yorkshire Dales. Lost the race to beat the fading light on the way down, and so picked our way down in the dark for the last hour, across glittering limestone rocks, and over peat bog crunchy with ice. For light: head torches, and a full moon steaming to the top of a thick flank of indigo cloud.

Emma Darwin’s Cheese Straws

Charles Darwin married Emma Wedgewood in 1838. And what a woman she was! She copy-edited On the Origin of Species for him, while running a household of 12 servants and giving birth to 10 children in 17 years. She kept a meticulous domestic budget, which included categories for things such as meat, candles, soap, loaf-sugar (sugar in a block), tea, eggs and bread. And she grew masses of vegetables (though with 12 servants, her nailbrush probably didn’t get much use).

Emma, basically, facilitated Darwin. Thanks to her, he was able to pursue his career as scientist and author. She may even have kept him alive, according to Dusha Bateson, co-author of Mrs. Charles Darwin’s Recipe Book (2008), a compendium of updated recipes from Emma’s own, partially leather-bound, hand-written cookbook. “Darwin had a lot of illnesses,” she says. “I think there’s a lot of evidence that suggests he wouldn’t have survived without Emma being there to prop him up and keep him going.”

So I simply can’t think of any better way to celebrate Darwin’s birthday than to go off right now, turn the oven on, think imperial, imagine an army of servants to do my bidding, and eat Emma’s cheese straws.

Cheese Straws
1 ½ ounces parmesan, finely grated
1 ½ ounces plain flour
¾ ounce butter, cut into small cubes
a pinch of cayenne pepper
a little salt

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Whiz the first 5 ingredients in a food processor until nicely blended. Add enough milk so that, with the machine running slowly, the pastry shows signs of coming together. Pour the mixture onto a floured surface and knead quickly into a ball. Roll out the pastry until it is very thin. Cut into strips – about ¼ inch wide and 3 inches long. Place on baking sheet and cook for about 20 minutes or until golden brown. Carefully transfer onto a wire rack and leave to cool. They will become crisp and easier to handle as they cool. Store in an airtight tin. Makes about 40.

The Origin of Species in plain English

My toes are tingling, and for once it’s not because of the bitter cold, even though it’s just started snowing again. I’m all abuzz because it is 200 years today since Charles Darwin was born, on February 12th, 1809.

David Attenborough said recently that one of the reasons for the sell-out success of the first print runs of Darwin’s famous publication On the Origin of Species By Means Of Natural Selection was not just because of the ground-breaking ideas it held, but because it explained them in a way that its Victorian audience found easy to understand.

Here is the first paragraph of Chapter 1, ‘Variation under Domestication’, from the 2003 unabridged edition edited by the Darwin scholar Joseph Carroll.

“When we look to the individuals of the same variety or sub-variety of our older cultivated plants and animals, one of the first points which strikes us, is, that they generally differ much more from each other than do the individuals of any one species or variety in the state of nature. When we reflect on the vast diversity of the plants and animals which have been cultivated, and which have varied during all the ages under the most different climates and treatment, I think we are driven to conclude that this greater variability is simply due to our domestic productions having been raised under conditions of life not so uniform as, and somewhat different from, those to which the parent-species have been exposed under nature.”

And here’s R W Sheldon’s version of the same paragraph, from Darwin’s Origin of Species: A condensed version of the first edition of 1859, published in 2008.

“If we look closely at domesticated animals and plants we notice that they are much more variable than wild species. This is because they have been raised for many generations under conditions that have been deliberately varied.”

Sheldon aim was simply to communicate Darwin’s ideas, arguments and key examples to a broader modern audience. In his introduction, Sheldon says that Darwin’s original text is, “not easy to read. This is not because it is not it is not clearly written. It is very clearly written, but the clarity is obscured by what one can only describe as Victorian verbiage. These extra words were necessary in 1859; people thought and read differently in those days, and Darwin had to put much effort into defending a position that we would now consider obvious.”

I have mixed feelings about this. Sheldon’s version necessarily pays little heed to the original tone, style and sheer grace of Darwin’s original masterpiece. But is the original text really so difficult to read, once you ‘tune in’ to the style? To me, it reads beautifully, capturing the context, social moment and inner thoughts of a genius. Few modern academics write so clearly.

If, though, a plain English version of Origins means that more people read Darwin’s work, and if then more people understand evolution, particularly in the face of creeping creationism, then so be it. Plain English, in this case, might just be a necessary evil.