May I have a word about… Boris Johnson, in granular detail

This article is more than 1 month old
I’m sure you all have a linguistic bete noire of 2020. Here’s one of mine…
Why doesn’t Boris Johnson say what he means?
Why doesn’t Boris Johnson say what he means? Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA
Why doesn’t Boris Johnson say what he means? Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

Last modified on Sun 13 Dec 2020 04.27 EST

Which word would you consign to the dustbin, never to be seen again, after this most bleak of years? Which, through its ubiquity, has irked you the most? Multiple? Moonshot? Substantial? Unprecedented?

One for me that has been making a late run for entry into the hall of infamy is “granular”. I noticed it first when Boris Johnson – who else? – was talking about discussing something in “granular detail”. What on earth does this mean? Does it mean examining it closely? If so, why not say so?

Sadly, he’s not alone. Just consider the following from last week: “Covid-19: ’Our data is becoming more granular and in real-time’”; “It is challenging to implement zero trust without granular controls. Instead of a carte blanch [sic] ‘allow or deny’ permission, permission should be extremely granular.” These, sadly, are far from isolated examples and show how an ill-applied word can flourish among jargon-happy adopters.

I will happily add “euthanised” to the list. A report on my local TV news programme was talking about a carp lake, whose population is to be rehoused as the lake is being given a spring clean. The reporter announced that healthy fish would be moved, while those that weren’t would be “euthanised”. No they won’t - they’ll be killed. This is right up there with “passed” when what the speaker means is “dead”. Enough of this prissiness.

Now, your starter for 10 - what is the German for “level playing field”? Give up? The answer is “level playing field” and I can tell you because these are the exact words that Frau Merkel used when talking about the haggling in Brussels. Truly, English is the language of international diplomacy. Such a shame that we don’t seem to be much good at it.

• Jonathan Bouquet is an Observer columnist

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