We often read of people justifying their mis-use of English on the grounds it’s constantly evolving and not rigidly fixed. Basically a Germanic language English nevertheless has a rich variety of contributing sources, but that doesn’t deny it can be mis-used.
Consider this comment from Inland Revenue Department spokesman Baden Campbell (a fictitious name I’d wager) on the Department’s new computer glitches.
“Fewer than 20 customers contacted us on this”, Mr Campbell asserted.
Let’s get one thing straight. The IRD has no customers. A customer is someone who voluntarily buys a service or product and no-one in history has voluntarily paid tax.
Mr Campbell, if interested in honesty, should have said “Fewer than 20 victims contacted us on this”, for that would be an accurate description of tax-payers, namely victims of theft. The definition of theft is to take someone’s property by coercion or stealth which is exactly what happens with respectively income tax and indirect taxes.
Mr Campbell may argue that IRD personnel doesn’t trouser the taxes but instead dishes them out to diverse government agencies to spend on our behalf. That may be so but is irrelevant, it still being theft because of its compulsion.
I’ve noticed some of our multitude of welfare agencies have in recent years referred to the recipients of their largesse as clients. That is accurate insofar as they are clients of agencies’ even though they are payees and not payers.
I suspect this gradual switch from ‘beneficiary’ to ‘client’ is because someone has decided ‘beneficiary’ is offensive, implying the receipt of money by way of a gift instead of a legal entitlement.
If so they are wrong as the money being dished out was stolen and despite laws regarding it’s issuance, cannot be said to have been forthcoming voluntarily. Thus they are beneficiaries, indeed it would be accurate to call them receivers of the proceeds of theft.
None of the above should be interpreted as a disbelief in the state or welfare but this piece is about correct and honest English.
The awareness of the dangers of topsy-turvy language is age-old. Orwell was probably the most famous exponent with his ‘1984’ novel but less known was Evelyn Waugh’s Love Among the Ruins novella published in 1953. Orwell was a gloomster; Waugh was an all-time great piss-taking genius despite his curmudgeon affectations in the post-war years.
Borrowing from Browning’s 1854 futuristic dooms-day poem, Love Among the Ruins in which the scene is painted of sheep grazing where once a great city stood, Waugh describes a futuristic world where crime is a failure of society and not of the criminals. This Waugh described as the New Law which held as a first principle that no man could be held responsible for the consequences of his own acts. Sound familiar? We’re having that line spun to us in New Zealand now regarding the horrific maori crime rate as a failure of society.