The Banned List: A manifesto against jargon and cliché

by John Rentoul (Elliott & Thompson, 2011): 109pp, £8.99 (hbk), ISBN 978 1 907642 42 5.

Reviewed by Imogen Olsen

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This small book – page size a mere 179 x 110 mm – is described on the jacket as 'the first title in Elliott & Thompson's collection of polemical essays'. And a short essay is all it is, followed by a list of words and expressions that the author advises us all to avoid.


John Rentoul is chief political commentator for the Independent on Sunday, so he's mainly concerned with the areas of politics and journalism. His 'meta-tip' is that 'if you avoid over-used, pretentious and abstract phrases – if you avoid annoying or boring the reader – people will think that you are cleverer than you actually are' (p. 52).

Long words and jargon, which are meant to impress, are often a camouflage for woolly thinking and make you look more stupid than you might be. Can James Murdoch really have said (p. 89), 'There are thresholds of materiality, if you will, whereby things have to move upstream'?

Up-to-date expressions and a few old warhorses

Of course, this idea is nothing new: most guides to English usage and good writing include an anti-jargon message. But John Rentoul is refreshingly funny and outspoken, and includes some very up-to-date expressions along with a few old warhorses like 'ongoing' and 'prioritise'. The following drive him as wild as they do me:

  • 'been there, done that, got the T-shirt'
  • 'a big ask'
  • 'comes with the territory'
  • 'does what it says on the tin'
  • 'no-brainer'
  • 'sing from the same hymn sheet'
  • 'skillset' ('has to be one word to capture its full horror')
  • 'step change'
  • 'what's not to like?'
  • 'you couldn't make it up'.

He includes 'disconnect, as a noun', which was vigorously debated on SfEPLine in October [2011], and 'dislocate, as a noun': 'There is a severe dislocate between many people and the whole political class' – a new one on me.

You could read the whole thing in an hour and be greatly entertained and inspired, but of course, if you work on material which consists entirely of management speak, the book won't be any use to you at all!

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