Data protection watchdog tells staff that French and Latin phrases should be phased out over fears they confuse the general public
- French phrases that were once de rigueur and Latin words used ad infinitum should be phased out, according to a leading watchdog
- The Information Commissioner’s Office has asked staff to change their modus operandi for fear of confusing the general public
- The organisation is concerned they are ‘alienating’ because many do not understand what they mean
French phrases that were once de rigueur and Latin words used ad infinitum should be phased out, according to a leading watchdog.
The Information Commissioner’s Office has asked staff to change their modus operandi for fear of confusing the general public.
It is not that the phrases are problematic per se but instead that the organisation is concerned they are ‘alienating’ because many do not understand what they mean.
The ICO, which is responsible for the operation of Freedom of Information legislation and data protection laws, has issued a style guide to its full and part-time staff.
French phrases that were once de rigueur and Latin words used ad infinitum should be phased out, according to a leading watchdog (File image)
It states: ‘English has embraced thousands of words from other languages, including bungalow, cliche, graffiti, kiosk and ombudsman. But some words of foreign origin are so uncommon that they confuse or alienate our readers.’
In particular, the guide warns staff not to use Latin words and phrases, including quid pro quo and ergo, because ‘few people have studied Latin’.
The advice has divided opinion, with Julian Fellowes, the Oscar-winning creator of Downton Abbey, suggesting it was ‘infantilising the British people’, and adding: ‘The idea that it is morally right to make absolutely no demands on anyone, either intellectually or emotionally, is a pernicious one and simply increases the gap between the privileged and those who are less so.’
A copy of the guide was obtained by The Mail on Sunday using a Freedom of Information request. Under the heading ‘Avoiding foreign words’, it lists 16 Latin phrases to be avoided, as well as several French ones, including en route.
The study of Latin is not widespread in the state education sector. Figures produced by the British Council in 2020 showed it was taught at Key Stage 3 level (11-to-14-year-olds) in only 2.7 per cent of state schools, compared with 49 per cent of private schools.
Ministers did, however, last year announce a £4 million Latin Excellence programme intended to boost teaching of the subject in comprehensive schools.
Reflecting on his education in Australia, human rights barrister Geoffrey Robertson QC said: ‘I studied Latin for five years at school, in the belief it would help me with a legal career. It did not. But at least it introduced me to the erotic poetry of Catullus.
Lee Monks, from the Plain English Campaign group, said: ‘If any move has been initiated to replace said terms with plain English alternatives, we would obviously welcome it (file image)
‘I even studied Roman law at university but there is not much call these days for legal advice on how to manumit [free] a slave. Some Latin phrases are so well known that we should stop italicising them and accept them as part of our language. If they are not, then they should never be uttered in court.’
The guide, which has been in use for some years, features some more obscure terms including a priori (based on what we know), sine qua non (an essential condition) and inter alia (among other things).
Lee Monks, from the Plain English Campaign group, said: ‘If any move has been initiated to replace said terms with plain English alternatives, we would obviously welcome it.
‘If any staff members are perplexed by the use of a term and feel uneasy adopting it, far better that they should be able to use simpler language. Although it’s only reasonable to point out that terms such as en route and per se are far less likely to be problematic than inter alia or ex officio.’
A spokesman for the ICO said: ‘We avoid using foreign words in our writing as some words are uncommon and may alienate our readers. The purpose of the style guide is to ensure our written communications are clear, easy to follow and are accessible to all ICO audiences.’
I thought in loco parentis* meant ‘my dad’s an engine driver’. But I adore the variety of our language
BY GYLES BRANDRETH WRITER, TV PRESENTER AND VETERAN OF COUNTDOWN’S DICTIONARY CORNER FOR THE MAIL ON SUNDAY
We were taught Latin at school, but I didn’t learn much. For years, I thought ‘in loco parentis’ meant ‘my dad’s an engine driver’.
That said, I love the richness and diversity of the English language, which includes words borrowed and adapted from every language under the sun.
American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson described the English language as a great river into which so many tributaries have flowed. Among those tributaries are French, Latin, Greek, Indian, Icelandic and German. It’s that variety that makes our language so rich, and some of the words and phrases that we are being encouraged to avoid are there simply because they express something clearly. Vis-a-vis, for example, now means something a bit different from its literal translation of face-to-face. You can find an English formulation that avoids using the French phrase, but you can also ask people to take on board and own these ‘foreign’ phrases.
We were taught Latin at school, but I didn’t learn much. For years, I thought ‘in loco parentis’ meant ‘my dad’s an engine driver’ (File imafge)
We want to be inclusive, and we don’t want to alienate anyone, but our language is international and some of these Latin tags and so-called foreign phrases are useful.
Everyone knows what a CV is. I think it’s interesting that the letters stand for curriculum vitae, and I’m not sure how useful it is to substitute something else for CV.
I am in favour of people increasing, not diminishing, their vocabulary. Yes, we want people to be able to understand one another, but I am rather against banning anything.
The great Dr Samuel Johnson wanted to stop the use of the word bamboozle, and that’s one of my favourite words. So rather than banning words and phrases, let’s instead teach people what they mean and how to use them.
* For readers who may have dozed off in the odd Latin lesson, in loco parentis means ‘in the place of a parent’, such as the duty of care a teacher has towards a pupil.