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Editor’s blog: EU-speak, or the art of calling a thing by anything other than its real name

One of the many jobs of the European Commission is to inspect the Member States to ensure they are properly applying EU legislation. The Commission sometimes outsources this work to its agencies, which are dotted around the continent. Governments found short of the mark are politely asked to mend their ways; if they don’t, they are sent a stiff warning letter or, as a last resort, taken to court and fined, writes Justin Stares.

This whole process is now a lot more delicate. Euro-sceptics are on the rise and Brussels is becoming increasingly shy about ‘meddling’, or actually telling anyone what to do. Budgets are going down and many EU law-makers would rather go back to the days when they were the invisible hand: essential but acting out of the public eye.

‘Inspections’ therefore have been re-branded. The Commission now conducts ‘visits’, the powers-that-be have decided. Its powers remain undiminished but this new term evidently has a much more friendly feel.

This is just the latest example of EU-speak, which is loosely defined as the ability to call a thing by anything other than its real name. “The country I know best”, for example, is the widely used euphemism for “my country”, or in my case, the UK. Sanctions are referred to as “restrictive measures”; a “reasoned opinion” is actually a threat of legal action.

While some terms seem to deliberately hide their true meaning, others are bizarre. Eurocrats don’t go on business trips, they go on “missions” – which  may sound much more exciting, though usually aren’t.

French is on the why out in Brussels, where English is by far the dominant language, though Gallic terms still survive. To be fair, some of these are useful in that they are better than their long-winded English equivalents. A “stagiare” is a young person on work experience, usually in one of the EU institutions. A “rapporteur” is a lead negotiator in the European Parliament, or alternatively the person given the job of summarising a workshop or conference when it finishes. A “chef de cabinet” is obviously a head of cabinet (of a commissioner, for example), which then mutates into “special chef” – not an exclusive cook but a meeting of cabinet experts on a particular topic.

No-one should expect multi-national institutions to exist without their own jargon, but let’s call a spade a spade whenever we can. And while we’re about it, can we possibly avoid American spellings of English words? There was a time when UK diplomats in Brussels would die rather than let incorrectly spelt words reach the official record. The minutes of working groups in the Council of Ministers were re-written so that “realize” became “realise” and so on. Perhaps it’s the budget cuts – who knows – but Americanisms are increasingly slipping thru (just kidding) into EU texts. Whatever next?

You can follow Justin on Twitter @JustinStares or on Tumblr here.

  1. If you didn’t see this already, I had to laugh when I came across it: ‘Misused English words and Expressions in EU publications’

    Comment by Dan on October 30, 2014 at 8:35 am
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