Official Words of Praise

Words index  Vivian Cook

The Cabinet Office gives guidance on how to nominate people for honours. They suggest:

"Effective citations often include nouns such as:

determination  commitment  respect  drive  sustainability  recognition  innovation  creativity  selflessness  impact  zeal  performance  ambassador

adjectives such as:

trusted  unstinting  conscientious  wise  inspirational  peerless  persuasive  passionate  exemplary  resourceful  enthusiastic  fair  tenacious  sympathetic admired  unflustered  supportive  vibrant  dogged  articulate  diligent  dedicated

and phrases such as:

making a difference   going the extra mile  role model   overcoming   obstacles   head and shoulders above the rest "

These have the characteristics of certain kinds of English jargon prose:

-   Average number of syllables: 3.08. Basic everyday English words tend to be shorter like good and true

-   Latin or French origin (-tion/ive endings etc) rather than Old English; none of these words probably came into English before the 14th century, apart from wise

-   Low frequency (unstinting 8 occurrences per 100 million words in BNC, zeal 332, tenacious 116 etc)

-   Abstract vague meaning: impact, vibrant,

-   Trite phrases: going the extra mile, head and shoulders above the rest 


Much of the this reflects the different historical strata in the English vocabulary. Words that come from Old English 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 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. Long words sound posher, within limits. On this measure the Cabinet Office still reflects the French bias of the English elite classes.


For many years the Plain English Campaign has been exhorting organisations to use clear English in official documents and forms. They advise ‘Prefer short words’. 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. Their undesirable words have an average of 3.8 syllables, their preferred words 1.7. The Cabinet Office preferences are clearly towards the undesirable end of the range.


The words selected by the Cabinet rather suggest that this is how they would like civil servants to be seen: unflustered, dedicated, inspirational, ambassadors. But is this actually how anybody else would describe those they sincerely admire? What is wrong with calling people good, fine, and worthy except that they are short words that preceded the Norman Conquest?