A trip to the marketplace of ideas is not unlike any other shopping trip. One tends to come back with things not on the original list.
So it was the other day. Looking to nail down when English officially took over from French as the language of Parliament (1362, it turns out), I also discovered the plain-language movement. This is a quiet but broad campaign to simplify the language of legislation, government, and the courts. What a good idea.
There is a connection between the shift from French to English and the effort to simplify official writing.
The Norman conquest of England in 1066 meant that French was imposed as the language of government and law. The Normans are one reason modern English has such an abundance of synonyms. If the Normans made life linguistically richer, though, they didn't make it simpler.
As David Elliott, a Canadian lawyer and advocate of plain language, explains, "[T]he scribes of the day had a problem. They wanted to be sure that [legal] transactions were effective – but how could they achieve that with a language in transition and a population that clung to English. The answer was simple – use two or three words instead of one. Use the Norman word, the English word, and if necessary the Latin as well."
Thus the familiar paired legal phrases: "free and clear" or "last will and testament." And it didn't help that legal scriveners were paid by the word.
The plain-language movement has a manifestation within the US government: the Plain English Action and Information Network, a group of federal employees trying to improve communications within government and especially with citizens. In Britain, there's the Plain English Campaign. It posts a regular "Gobbledygook of the week" feature and gives "Golden Bull" awards for truly outstanding examples of blather.