S2 E30

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The other day I was talking to one of the members of my EFL teachers’ membership Ethos English Lab and he was telling me about a common frustration amongst English teachers he works with. These are people whose first language isn’t English who have achieved a high level of proficiency in the language and yet still feel like there’s something’s missing when it comes to the way they speak English. He was telling me how they have picked up a fair amount of their vocabulary from exam preparation books and that they have an extensive knowledge of seemingly impressive collocations like “be of paramount importance”. 

Having taught C1 and C2 exam preparation courses for years, I’m well aware that a lot of class time is devoted to teaching turns of phrase like this one that sound sophisticated but don’t actually allow the speaker to express a new idea. For example, while it’s true that saying that something is of paramount importance may help you sound more educated, this is really just treating language skills as an elaborate exercise in classism. There’s no meaningful difference between saying something is of paramount importance and that saying that it is very important. 

When we focus on learning new ways of expressing familiar ideas, we’re basically treating language as a status symbol, something to show off, like an expensive handbag or watch. Words or phrases that convey our membership of a group are called shibboleths

Saying them is like a kind of secret handshake that tells people that you’re part of their group. This unusual sounding word comes from the Hebrew Bible. In the Book of Judges there is a story about two warring tribes, the Ephraimites and the Gileadites. The Gileadites manage to defend themselves from the invading Ephraimites. The surviving Ephraimites try to retreat and return home by crossing the river Jordan, but the Gileadites are standing guard at the river. To identify the Ephraimites they simply have them say the word shibboleth – meaning flood or torrent. The Ephraimites, unable to pronounce the “sh” sound, say “sibboleth” and thereby seal their own fate

According to the Cambridge English dictionary, a shibboleth is a word, phrase, custom, etc., only known to a particular group of people, that you can use to prove to them that you are a real member of that group. This is actually imprecise. I would add that it is often a word or phrase that you use that unintentionally reveals who you are, as in the original example from the Bible. For example, say you meet an American who says that we need to make America great again, well, they’re not necessarily trying to tell you their political affiliations, but they’ve made them clear nonetheless.

So, going back to English skills as shibboleth. In many situations you will benefit from being able to express yourself in more prestigious varieties of a language. But true communication skills are not about window dressing, that is, making your language sound nicer or more elegant, but about expressing yourself more precisely. 

I’m going to quote from George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language”, which can easily be found online, in which he gives examples of this verbal window dressing. He writes:

[Operators or verbal false limbs] save the trouble of picking out appropriate verbs and nouns, and at the same time pad each sentence with extra syllables which give it an appearance of symmetry. Characteristic phrases are: render inoperative, militate against, prove unacceptable, make contact with, be subject 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, etc. etc. The keynote is the elimination of simple verbs. Instead of being a single word, such as break, stop, spoil, mend, kill, a verb becomes a phrase, made up of a noun or adjective tacked on to some general-purposes verb such as prove, serve, form, play, render.

Later on Orwell observes the following:

Simple conjunctions and prepositions are replaced by such phrases as with respect to, having regard to, the fact that, by dint of, in view of, in the interests of, on the hypothesis that; and the ends of sentences are saved from anticlimax by such resounding commonplaces as greatly to be desired, cannot be left out of account, a development to be expected in the near future, deserving of serious consideration, brought to a satisfactory conclusion, and so on and so forth. 

I’m not of the view that we should entirely cut out this verbal window dressing. Notice how I just said “I’m not of the view that” instead of just “I don’t think that”? If I were following Orwell’s advice to the letter I would have to choose the simpler option. But I think we should take his advice with a grain of salt. After all, we know that in some contexts, say in academia, the workplace, interviews, language exams, our ability to shift register and use more formal turns is a kind of social currency. 

Rather than obsessing about doing away with verbal window dressing, what’s more important is paying attention to language that expresses new ideas. Shibboleth is a good example of this. 

One of the most rewarding things about teaching language is not just helping our students learn language to express the ideas they already have but also to learn language that allows them to have new ideas. In his essay George Orwell states that authors who fill their writing with verbiage, that is, many unnecessary, meaningless words, lack precision. To allow our students to be more precise we need to draw their attention to words as concepts not as adornments.

I’ve said before on this podcast that I love the word counterintuitive. It’s a word that should be in everyone’s lexicon. Why? Because it expresses the very important and often overlooked fact that human beings often profoundly misunderstand the way things work because the right answer seems so obvious. Counterintuitiveness is a very useful concept. And it’s also very precise. Like shibboleth.

So, to conclude, to balance your vocabulary learning ask yourself this question: Does this word or chunk represent a precise concept not easily conveyed in another way? Window-dressing can be helpful, but, to extend this shopping metaphor, let’s also make sure there are plenty of precise ideas lining your shops’ shelves.

Now, before we go over this week’s vocabulary, here’s a brief word from my sponsor – me! Ethos English Lab is a membership for English teachers whose first language isn’t English. It’s a tight-knit community which meets twice a month on Zoom for debates and workshops and it also includes online self-study content. If you’re interested in finding out more about Ethos English Lab send me an email to sean@ethosenglish.com or click on the link in the show description to book a free Zoom call with me.

shibboleth a word, phrase, custom, etc., only known to a particular group of people, that you can use to prove to them that you are a real member of that group – also, such a word, phrase, etc. that reveals your membership of such a group to others, even without you realising it.
The candidate repeated the usual shibboleths about law and order that would appeal to conservative voters.
thereby adverb (formal)   with the result that something else happens
He became a citizen in 1978, thereby gaining the right to vote.
seal someone’s fate make it certain that something bad will happen to someone, especially that they will die
Engine failure sealed the pilot’s fate.
affiliation a connection with a political party or religion, or with a larger organisation
The judge was asked about his religious beliefs and political affiliation.
window dressing the art of arranging goods in a shop window so that they look attractive to customers, and by extension something that is intended to make people like your plans or activities, and to stop them seeing the true situation – used to show disapproval
All these glossy pamphlets are just window dressing – the fact is that the new mall will ruin the neighbourhood.
to the letter If you obey instructions or rules to the letter, you do exactly what you have been told to do, giving great attention to every detail.
When baking it’s best you follow the recipe to the letter.
take something with a grain of salt not completely believe something that you are told, because you think it is unlikely to be true
You have to take everything she says with a grain of salt, because she tends to exaggerate.
verbiage language that is very complicated and contains a lot of unnecessary words
Effective writers avoid verbiage and use clear and precise language.