I have spent a lot of time listening to the radio over the past couple of weeks as I had a fall, concussed myself and have been seeing stars - and avoiding looking at a screen - ever since. Thanks for all your emails and comments offering your good wishes.
Word of Mouth has returned to Radio 4 for a new series (listen here) and the first episode was devoted to the language of the financial markets. It's language that often sounds harmless and innocuous - structured financing or securitised loans, for instance, which sound safe and positive, but which are actually very complex, poorly understood phenomena. Interviewees on the programme mentioned how innocent-sounding euphemisms are used to cover up the harsh reality; so, if leverage was actually called over-borrowing, which is what it is, people might regard it in a very different light.
Definitions of business and financial terms are often very fluid and subjective and reflect the speaker's point of view. As a businessman said, the word entrepreneur means much the same as capitalist, but it is far more socially acceptable. Depending on your point of view you either regard selling as a means of providing the goods that people want, or you see it as fraud perpetrated by con-men.
We were told that Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England's favourite word is counterfactual. Apparently, when asked a difficult question his answer often includes the word 'counterfactual' (which I think means 'no-one can explain it'). I've just checked this and see that in a Treasury Committee Meeting on 28 November 2011 King said "The really interesting question to ask about the asset purchases is what is the counterfactual if we had not made the asset purchases?"
Also on the programme was Gillian Tett of the Financial Times. Before her change of career she was an anthropologist, and when she joined the world of finance she approached it as if she were studying a completely unknown people with a completely different culture. She said that you have to learn the language to be accepted and to understand the culture. She compared modern-day bankers to the medieval priestly caste, who spoke an incomprehensible language as far as ordinary people were concerned, but as long as the priests dispensed blessings, incense or whatever, then the ordinary people were satisfied and did not challenge this arcane group. Today's bankers dispensed, not blessings or incense, but cheap mortgages, and these 'sops' had the same effect on the masses.
Inside the French Academy looked at the august institution which polices and protects the French language, and writes the definitive dictionary of the French language. The Academy was founded in 1635. At that time, we heard on the programme, there were many different dialects spoken in France, and the aim of the Academy was to promote one single official French language for everyone to speak. The original aims were liberté, égalité and fraternité - all would speak the same language and thus be equal.
Much of the Academy's efforts go into resisting the invasion of French by English words, such as the very popular le buzz. Sometimes, it is successful - as in the case of l'ordinateur, computer, for instance, but often it arrives on the scene too late - the English words, blog and podcast, for instance, are already in such widespread usage that no-one wants to use the Academy's original suggestions - bloc-notes and baladodiffusion.
One of the 40 'Immortals' who run the French Academy (mainly literary, cultural and scientific heavyweights) compared the dictionary the Academy is in the process of writing with the OED, and said it couldn't be more different. The OED is scientific, whereas the French Academy's dictionary isn't - it represents the views of the Immortals, and it is they who determine spellings, definitions etc, not linguists or lexicographers.
Someone in the programme noted that the French has always had revolutionary and egalitarian credentials. When the Arab Spring conflicts were sparked off by Tunisian protests, it was the French word dégage! 'give us freedom' (it also means 'get lost', which was aimed at their leaders) that the crowds shouted.