The Banned List

The Banned List
The Banned List

Do you have a “banned list”? John Rentoul, Author of The Banned List: A Manifesto Against Jargon and Cliche, joins the conversation to discuss the benefit of avoiding overused phrases. His book discusses the rules to bear in mind when writing or speaking clearly and simply.

Below find an excerpt from his book and tweet us what is on your banned list @thecyclemsnbc using #thecycle

The Banned List actually started as an email,

now lost, that I wrote around 2000 with some

rules for leading articles in The Independent.

They should never begin with ‘So’, I said. Since

then I have realised that this is only the first

of a rising three-part scale. Worse is to start an

article with ‘And so’. Worst of all is ‘And so it

begins.’ Time can be saved by not reading on

if an article starts with any of those. Although

that kind of sweeping judgement can lead one

astray, as it once did Martin Amis, to whom I

shall come in a moment.

Most of my other rules were more specific

to leading articles. (I said we should use formal

language such as ‘leading article’ rather than

 ‘leader’, ‘newspaper’ rather than ‘paper’ and avoid

contractions such as ‘don’t’ and ‘can’t’; the other

rule that I remember was: ‘We never call for a

debate, because we know what we think.’) The

guidelines also advised against the use of foreign

languages, as did George Orwell, to whom I shall

also come in a moment, or dead ones, which

Orwell did not mention. I think there had been

some debate in the office about the use of the

Latin word pace, in which it turned out that

some people not only did not know what it

means (‘with respect to’ in the sense of ‘contrary

to the opinion of ’) but thought that it is a way

of citing someone in one’s support. Quod erat


It would be a cliché, and wrong, to say that

I was standing on the shoulders of giants in

compiling those guidelines, and this List. I am

not standing on anything; I am stealing. It was

Henry Fowler whom I burgled first. His Modern

English Usage is a fine browsing-ground for

those who care about clear writing, although,

as David Crystal points out in his introduction

to the 2009 reissue of the first edition, Fowler

contradicts himself repeatedly. People who

object that ‘under the circumstances’ ought to

be ‘in the circumstances’ (a good point, now he

mentions it) are dismissed as ‘puerile’. He says

that using the prefix ‘super-’ not in its primary

sense of ‘above’ or ‘transcending’ but meaning

‘of a superior kind’, ‘as in superman, supermarket,

superministry … is so evidently convenient

that it is vain to protest when others indulge in

it’ (a lovely condescension).

But, as Crystal notes, ‘when Fowler encounters

a usage he does not like, his language alters’.

For example, he refuses to tolerate the coming

together of ‘forceful’ and ‘forcible’ — ‘such

writers injure the language’ — and he condemns

the use of ‘phenomenal’ to mean ‘remarkable’ as

having had ‘unreasonable vogue’. He says that

‘believers in sound English may deliver their

attack upon such usages with hope of success’.

How wrong he turned out to be.

Then came George Orwell, whom I admire

mainly because his real name was Blair.

Others admire him because he wrote well and

passionately against sloppy political writing.

Not that his own writing is universally praised.

According to Christopher Hitchens, Martin

Amis ‘declined to go any further into Nineteen

Eighty-Four because the words “ruggedly handsome

features” appear on the first page’. (The

features belong to Big Brother in a poster.)

Amis said: ‘The man can’t write worth a

damn.’ Hitchens tells the story in his memoir,

Hitch-22, and Amis confirmed it to Michael

Ezra, a friend of mine. Amis would ‘never let

friendship take precedence over his first love,

which was and is the English language’, wrote

Hitchens, who admitted that his friend had

once rebuked him for using ‘no mean achievement’

in an article. I have added that to the

List too.

Amis later grudgingly admitted that Nineteen

Eighty-Four improved after its unfortunate start,

but Orwell is cited here because he compiled an

early version of the Banned List in his essay,

‘Politics and the English Language’, in 1946.

He identified four categories of verbiage: ‘dying

metaphors, verbal false limbs, pretentious diction

and meaningless words’.

His examples of dying metaphors were:

Ring the changes on, take up the cudgel

for, toe the line, ride roughshod over,

stand shoulder to shoulder with, play

into the hands of, no axe to grind, grist

to the mill, fishing in troubled waters,

on the order of the day, Achilles’ heel,

swan song, hotbed.

All of them I have added to my list, except

‘fishing in troubled waters’, which is now extinct.

I thought that ‘take up the cudgel for’ was sleeping

with the fishes too, but I found that Jemima

Khan had stepped outside her Oxfordshire

mansion to ‘take up the cudgels for human

rights’, according to my good colleague Ian

Burrell of The Independent in December 2010.

The pluralisation of the original cudgel is one

of those subtle changes that clichés undergo over

decades. The ‘on the’ has dropped off ‘the order

of the day’, and ‘toe the line’ has been rendered

so featureless by over-use that it is now often

written as ‘tow the line’, which is a different

metaphor altogether.

‘Verbal false limbs’ was hardly an elegant

phrase, but you see what Orwell meant when

he explained:

Characteristic phrases are render inoperative,

militate against, make contact

with, be subjected to, give rise to, give

grounds for, have the effect of, play a

leading part (role) in, make itself felt,

take effect, exhibit a tendency to, serve

the purpose of.

I have added them all. They are all still current,

although some are more offensive than others.

(‘Militate against’ is a particular menace because

some people confuse ‘militate’ and ‘mitigate’,

which turns it into a nonsense phrase.)

When he came to ‘pretentious diction’ Orwell

seems to have run out of time to think of really

objectionable examples.

Words like phenomenon, element,

individual (as noun), objective,

categorical, effective, virtual, basic,

primary, promote, constitute, exhibit,

exploit, utilise, eliminate, liquidate.

Many of them are unattractive and should

be substituted by shorter, more direct words

if possible, but ‘element’, ‘primary’ and ‘exploit’

are perfectly good words of precise meaning.

Others of his examples may have evolved

since 1946. It would be fussy to rule against

the use of individual as a noun now. But most

of them are objectionable only if misused.

‘Promote’ and ‘constitute’ are useful words in

the right places and are pretentious only if used

to mean ‘encourage’ or ‘make up’. So I have not

added these, except ‘utilise’, which has no place

in the English language as long as the ‘tili’ can

be excised.

Orwell’s examples of meaningless words

— class, totalitarian, science, progressive,

reactionary, bourgeois, equality — also seem

unnecessarily argumentative. What he means is

that they are often used to add value judgements

surreptitiously to statements about which the

reader ought to be allowed to make up his or

her own mind. Again, most of them cannot be

banned altogether, and even ‘progressive’, which

is on my Banned List, is permitted when making

an arithmetical point about tax systems.

Orwell’s essay also set out six flawed rules to

help write good English:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other

figure of speech which you are used to

seeing in print.

2. Never use a long word where a short one

will do.

3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always

cut it out.

4. Never use the passive where you can use

the active.

5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific

word, or a jargon word if you can think

of an everyday English equivalent.

6. Break any of these rules sooner than say

anything outright barbarous.

The first and the fifth are all right, but the others

depend on the sixth to make sense of their

ironic absolutism. It may be possible never to use

foreign, scientific or jargon words, but not even

Martin Amis could abide by the first rule all the

time. Criticising Orwell for his ‘never’ and ‘always’

might seem a bit rich — or even, to test rule five,

a case of lese-majesty * — from someone who

has called his own book The Banned List. But it

would have been more use if Orwell had said a bit

more about the reasons for going against his rules

than the avoidance of the ‘outright barbarous’.

Barbarity is not the test. Sometimes long words

are more interesting than short ones. Sometimes

• Lese-majesty is actually an Anglicised phrase; the French is lèse



The Banned List

words that are strictly superfluous improve the

rhythm of a sentence, or make it funny. The

common complaint against sub-editors is that

the first thing they do is take out all the jokes.

It is possible to cut them out, so if the article is

too long they do so. (Although the complaint is

often unfair: if a sub-editor takes out a joke, the

first possibility that ought to be considered is

that it was not funny.)

And where would you stop? It would be

possible to cut out all but the first paragraph

of most news stories, and some media organisations

seem to aspire to this model. William

Shakespeare could have written, ‘boy meets

girl and everyone dies’, but the play would

have lacked a certain ‘I know not what’, as the

French say. Or we could all write nothing at

all and abandon what Erich Fromm called the

struggle against pointlessness. Rule four is an

exaggeration too. Sometimes, if only to vary the

mood, the passive is to be preferred (I cannot

say it, because it is on the List, but if you did

see what I did there, well done).

With those qualifications, then, Orwell’s rules

are all very well, but we are particularly interested

here in his lists of examples. They are one of the

sources on which I have drawn in compiling the

Banned List.

Some of the List was put together from my

chance dislikes that, like that stupid economy,

caused me to sublimate my desire to shout

at the radio or television, or to throw down

a newspaper in disgust. Increasingly, others

nominated their own dislikes for inclusion,

which I accepted or rejected with arbitrary

power. Readers of my blog and other Twitter

users were my best resource. Contrary to

Google’s being ‘white bread of the mind’, in

the loopy phrase of Tara Brabazon, a professor

of media studies at Brighton University,

the power of computers can be harnessed for

mutual self-improvement. Yes, there is a lot

of text-message abbreviation on the internet,

a lot of carelessly-written comment and a lot

of badly-written pretension. But there is also

a lot of good writing, a freshness of expression


The Banned List

and all kinds of new slang, some of which is

highly inventive and ticklish.

The internet can allow people to dumb down,

if that is what they want, but it is also a liberator

for those seeking out quality. My experience is

that people care about language; pedantry is

also popular. The internet is not destroying the

language but giving us new ways of shaming

its most prominent practitioners into using it


Suggestions from people online now make up

most of the List, and their contributions reveal

that there is a core of linguistic crimes that

causes most offence. ‘Going forward’ is possibly

the current top irritant. ‘Around’ to mean about,

as in ‘address issues around gender’, ‘iconic’ and

‘no brainer’ are persistently nominated. Then

there are the vogue phrases of commentary,

especially political commentary, and especially

those borrowed from business jargon, such

‘the elephant in the room’, ‘perfect storm’,

‘parameter’ and ‘pressing all the right buttons’.

This core changes over time – as I have noted,

some clichés go through a cycle like diseases:

outbreak, spread, peak and decline. Sometimes

they become part of the language, as if the

ectoplasm of English has absorbed the infection

and turned it to useful purpose. There has

been a fashion that has lasted for some years,

for example, for ‘verbing’ nouns: access, impact,

foreground and address.

Some readers directed my attention to lists

other than Orwell’s that someone else had

prepared earlier. Matthew Parris and Paul Flynn

made a list called ‘Political Deadspeak’ for a BBC

Radio 4 programme called Not My Words, Mr

Speaker in September 2007. It had ‘dialogue

of the deaf ’, ‘economics of the madhouse’, ‘not

rocket science’, ‘level playing field’, ‘siren voices’

and many more that I have copied and pasted.

Allan Christiansen, an official at Auckland

Council in New Zealand, sent me a list of his translations

of bureaucratic jargon, which included:

Action point: Place where you go for

some action. Pub, nightclub, etc.

Enhancement meeting: Hair appointment,

facial, makeover or any other beauty

treatment that looks great for five

minutes and then reverts to its old self.

Hot desk: Stolen.

Work-flowed: The result of quickly lifting

up your desk at one end. Also known as

a planned-slide, or clear desk policy.

Workstreams: Office flood.

Some of his suggestions are on the list, although

the imaginary Committee ruled that the examples

above were peculiar to large organisations

and have not (yet) seeped into general use.

Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair,

had a short list of journalese words, which his

writers were not allowed to use. It included

opine, pen (as a verb) and inadvisable alternatives

to ‘said’ (chortled, joked, quipped), which

I adopted, as well as injunctions against the use

of funky, glitz and weird, which I did not.

One of the words on Carter’s list was

‘plethora’, which needs no further explanation

but is so much more interesting if it gets it. Like

so many of the worst items on the list it is not

only a cliché but it is usually used incorrectly.

This was best explained by my learned colleague

Guy Keleny:

Do we really need a word that means

a harmful excess of something which,

in due measure, would be beneficial?

Yes, actually, we do; and that is what

‘plethora’ means. If we keep using it

to mean just ‘a lot’, then we will lose

a useful word, which would be a pity.

[The Independent, 28 May 2011.]

Too late now, I suspect. But Guy’s ‘Errors

& Omissions’ column in The Independent (it

used to be called ‘Mea Culpa’, which was not

strictly accurate and not English but I rather

liked it) was one of my best sources for the

Banned List. He not only identified candidates

for inclusion, but drily explained why they are

so objectionable.

It was he who identified a new genus of waffle:

‘those terms ending in “of” that amount to little

more than preliminary throat-clearing.’ They

include ‘the level of ’, ‘a sense of ’, ‘a series of ’, ‘the

introduction of ’, ‘a package of ’, ‘a basket of ’, ‘a

raft of ’, ‘a range of ’ and ‘the prospect of ’. As he

said, ‘They can nearly always be struck out.’ [The

Independent, 30 October 2010.] In one sweeping

movement, he added nine items to the list. ‘All

the hallmarks of ’ makes it ten, and Liz Kendall,

the MP for Leicester West and a former adviser

at the Department of Health, added ‘a suite of ’

policies, a phrase that she said was ‘beloved’ there.

Thus my list grew. Sometimes it felt as if it

had grown too long. Some of my correspondents

complained that it would be easier to publish a

list of words and phrases that are permitted, or

that I was trying to reduce all communication

to grunts and clicks. This is untrue: English is

such a rich language that, no matter how long

the Banned List becomes, the scope for creativity

and originality with what is left remains infinite.

It would be hard, and beside the point, however,

to list all the figures of speech ‘which you are

used to seeing in print’.

The List is not in the business of simply

compiling over-used metaphors, archaisms

and jargon; it is a selection of the most irritating.

Common or garden clichés are therefore

permitted. Their main interest — and it is not

that interesting — lies in their origins. The earliest

use of ‘common or garden’ identified by the

Oxford English Dictionary was in a 1657 botany

book: ‘The Common or Garden Nightshade is

not dangerous.’

Provided that they keep themselves to themselves,

that they are not trying to annoy, plain

clichés may be waved through on a temporary

idiom visa. The scales falling from the eyes (that

was Paul, or Saul, on the road to Damascus:

‘there fell from his eyes as it had been scales’, Acts

9:18; modern translations have the less poetic

but more informative ‘something like fish scales

fell from his eyes’); the biting of bullets (a once

graphic reference to coping with pain during

surgery without anaesthetic); the light at the end

of the tunnel; the end game: trying to list them

all starts off fun but becomes as interesting as

collecting bus numbers.

Indeed, you could try to classify hackneyed

words and phrases; to devise a taxonomy. There

are metaphors, such as those above. There are

subcategories of metaphor, such as sporting

ones (playing catch-up; sticky wicket; open

goal), which are bearable, because at least most

people know roughly what they mean; and

sub-subcategories, such as American sporting

metaphors (step up to the plate; ballpark; Hail

Mary pass), which are not. Nautical metaphors

(on someone’s watch, trimming sails, full steam

ahead) are common in English, even though few

people have direct knowledge of the originals.

There are similes, not so common (like a rolling

stone; compare thee to a summer’s day; as

if butter would not melt in her mouth). There

are old-fashioned words (the batting of eyelids;

the ploughing of furrows; the linchpin) that

survived in a niche because they fitted, or because

they provided variety, but which are now part

of the sameness. There are new and slang words

to which the same applies.

There are specialist words, and foreign words.

Some of these have been assimilated and have

been rendered harmless, such as cliché, French

for stencil, which provides English with a word

that it did not have and for which there is a need.

None of these offend. Soubriquet, on the other

hand, which the dictionary tells me is usually

spelt sobriquet, originally meant a ‘chuck under

the chin’, but it does not matter because we have

had enough of it: it goes on the List.

The List, therefore, is not merely for clichés;

it is reserved for those that grate, or that are

wrong; it is for jargon so foolish that it impedes

communication; and for stock devices that

betray an insulting lack of thought.


The Banned List