Collins Language

Blogs from the Collins Language team in Glasgow, UK.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

May 5th 2010

A Transparent Choice?

On 6 April, 2010, Gordon Brown drove to Buckingham Palace to ask the Queen to dissolve Parliament. He then returned to Downing Street, announced the date of the next General Election, and delivered a brief address in which he promised, among other things, 'transparent, accountable, open and democratic politics being pursued in this country'.

We've heard this before, and not just from the Labour Party. In fact, Collins Bank of English 2005 (our current corpus of over a billion words of written and spoken English) has 73 citations of 'transparent and accountable' and 199 citations of 'transparency and accountability'. In the Bank of English 2009, which contains citations up to and including last year, the frequency of 'transparent and accountable' jumps to 185, while 'transparency and accountability' reaches a whopping 608. Clearly, these expressions are becoming popular political catch phrases. But when I was growing up, transparent meant 'see-through', and transparency referred to one of those clear plastic sheets teachers put on an overhead projector. So when did these words begin to change their meaning?

Transparent entered English in the early fifteenth century. It comes from Latin trans, meaning 'through' and parere, meaning 'to appear'; something that is 'transparent' allows what is behind it, especially light, to appear or be visible through it. It was almost two centuries before we saw a recorded figurative usage of the word, meaning 'clear' in the sense of 'obvious'. Interestingly, it was Shakespeare who first used transparent this way, for example in Romeo and Juliet: 'Transparent Heretiques be burnt for liers'.

Transparent and transparency, as applied to politics, business practices, and the like, do not connote either 'frankness' or 'obviousness' per se, but rather something more specific: visibility and accessibility to the general public. Transparent decision-making is not 'candid', nor is it 'obvious'; rather, it is 'out in the open', available for public scrutiny. It means we can see what they're doing and how they do it ('they' being invariably important people in the worlds of business, finance, and politics).

We can get a snapshot of how transparent and transparency are being used with the Collins corpus. For example, the nouns most likely to be transparent in Bank of English 2005 point to a mix of the 'see-through' and 'open to public scrutiny' senses: onion, motive, process, procedure, plastic, villain, raincoat, manner, reporting, accounting. The word most likely to be joined to transparent by 'and' is accountable (i.e. 'transparent and accountable'). If we limit the citations to only those before 1990, however, the situation changes. The noun motive is still on the list, but much farther down, while process, procedure, reporting, and accounting have completely dropped off, and there is only one citation for 'transparent and accountable'. The situation hardly changes for the early 1990s, but citations from 1995-1999 give us transparent cost-management (1999), pricing (1998-99), and bidding (1998), with 'transparent and accountable' showing a jump in frequency in 1999 (doubling its frequency from the previous year). Citations from 2000-2005 give us a picture much like that in Bank of English 2005 as a whole.

In Bank of English 2009, transparent is even more skewed toward the 'open to public scrutiny' sense: in addition to the 2005 words, transaction, fee, government, governance, disclosure, and decision-making are all 'transparent', and accountable still tops the list of words joined to transparent by 'and'. These days, when you hear someone in a suit say 'transparent', chances are they do not simply mean 'see-through'.

A Big Idea

The Tories, meanwhile, are trying to capture the public's hearts and minds with new catchphrases. This started way back in 2007, when David Cameron started pitching the idea of Britain as a 'broken society'. In the Bank of English 2005, there are only 4 citations for this phrase, one referring to Iraq in the aftermath of the second Gulf War, one referring to Iran during the revolution, one referring to South Africa's continuing problems with segregation, and one referring to Cambodia. Bank of English 2009, however, has 55 citations of this phrase, all referring to Britain – or Cameron's characterization of Britain, and nearly all appearing within quotation marks. The monitor corpus, which compiles citations of English on a monthly basis, has 139 citations of 'broken society'. However, this is a rather pessimistic catchphrase. So last month, Cameron debuted his solution to the 'broken society': namely the 'big society'.

'Big society' is Cameron's antidote to the (originally American) concept of 'big government'. Naturally, there are no citations for 'big society' in either the 2005 or 2009 versions of Bank of English. The handful of hits are phrases like 'a big society fundraiser'. The monitor corpus, however, has 27 citations of this phrase: still way behind 'broken society', but still quite a strong showing considering the phrase is only a month old.

The Agony and the Cleggstacy

Sometimes the most memorable political buzzwords, however, are not those the politicians foist upon us, but rather those which become attached to them from outside sources. Such is the case with Cleggmania and the more obscure but cleverer Cleggstacy. Both these terms refer to the brief but widely reported bump in popularity the Liberal Democrats enjoyed following leader Nick Clegg's performance during the first of the three televised debates. This bump put the LibDems ahead in the polls, probably for the first time since they were the Whigs. The bump was brief, however, which is reflected in the relatively poor showing in the Bank of English: the monitor corpus only has 5 citations of Cleggmania and none for Cleggstacy. Even Google cannot dredge up much more evidence that these words are still being widely used: 190,000 hits for Cleggmania, which is a drop in the ocean in Google terms, and a mere 1,310 for Cleggstacy, which is practically non-existent.

Lancastrians at the –gate

Sometimes these external buzzwords work against the politicians, as Gordon Brown has recently discovered. With just over a week to go before the General Election, Brown was heard calling a Labour supporter in Rochdale a 'bigoted woman'. The ensuing controversy has given English yet another '-gate': 'bigotgate'. Some particularly clever pundits have even created a 'backronym' out of bigot: Brown Is Gone On Thursday. As 'bigotgate' is just a week old, it's too new even for the monitor corpus. It does, however, have 280,000 Google hits, which, though still a small number, is more than Cleggmania.


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