Mbabane, Swaziland | 19 Feb 2014
Aren’t friends wonderful. Or, to add a degree of doubt (and reality) into the picture, should we not add a question mark to the end of that sentence.
Aren’t friends wonderful?
But we’ll come back to that question in a few moments, or as my grandma used to say, “I’ll be with you in two shakes of a lamb’s tail”. I always found that an odd phrase considering granny never did own a lamb.
A wise man once told me his definition of a successful life. On his deathbed the wise man said he wanted to look back and know that he had lived life with five true friends. A simple and fulfilling definition of success.
This wise old man also said that friends – true friends – will not lie to you. He said enemies would lie to you. But friends would tell you the cold, hard and often inconvenient truths. Or as we say in my native and uncouth Australia, “Friends don’t bullsh*t you”.
This wise old man’s voice came to me last week when a friend told me that he thought some of my columns were “a bit arrogant”.
With a slightly shocked look on my face, eyes opening wide, this straight-talking friend (who I shall not name for ethical reasons) continued: “You know, Bill, you really think you’re some expert on the English language, don’t you?”
I didn’t quite know what to say. It was fortunate therefore that my friend continued to fill the void: “Yeah, you know, Bill, it’s all well and good to criticise but you need to offer some solutions. What words are we meant to use instead of empower and strategy and so on?”
I wasn’t sure if he was winding me up, but I certainly detected a large dose of truth in his voice. He wasn’t pulling his punches. Perhaps he was teasing me while also telling the truth – the dreaded one-two-knock-out-punch.
Regardless of my fragile feelings, my friend – true friend – has a point.
So I went searching for some alternatives to the first word he mentioned: Empower.
And it was the “Bible” in battle against jargon and gobbledygook, Don Watson’s little book Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language that offered just those alternatives.
Instead of, or in addition to using “empower”, he suggests: “To give power. Empowered. Empowerment, including: self-empowerment (noun), empowering (adjective), strengthen, vivify, revive, enliven, liberate, make confident, effectual, etc. (As in: Brave Achilles empowered Patroclus by giving him a shield. Jesus empowered Lazarus by raising him from the dead. Harry empowered Glenda by giving her the chequebook. A kiss empowered Sleeping Beauty who had been disempowered by a witch.) Employment, authority, tolerance, psychoanalysis, religion, a PhD, pethidine and nuclear weapons are all said to empower people.”
Lastly, and for the record, my friend, I am in no way claiming to be an expert on the English language. For starters, without spell-check and websites on language I slip back to the standard of a three-year-old. Truth be told, English is not taught very well in Western schools these days.
Secondly, if you have heard us Australians speak you will know it’s quite impossible to be an expert on language and an Australian all at the same time. We don’t open our mouths much when we talk so most of the sound comes out of the noise. Not good for clarity, but not bad when you have sinuses to clear – just talk more.
And thirdly, God knows we already have enough experts in the world.
This column was originally published in the Times of Swaziland on February 19 2014