With the possible exception of Victoria “Port Out Starboard Home” Beckham and her husband, this country’s greatest gift to the world is the English language.
Yet for all its richness, variety and poetry, there are some tasks to which the language of Shakespeare and Keats is unequal. However hard one tries, words can never adequately describe those twin sensations, taste and smell. Whenever the attempt is made, the speaker sounds foolish, pretentious or both.
The most obvious example is the vocabulary of the wine taster. TV personality Jilly Goolden takes this to extremes, though not without self-mockery. She swigs, rolls the liquid around her tongue, sucks in her cheeks, closes her eyes and, at last, swallows hard. As the wine sinks, they pass – coming up the other way – the words that will describe the sensations so recently conveyed.
She gives voice in the manner of a spiritualist communing with the other side: “I’m getting muffins, I’m getting gooseberries. I’m getting a hint of wet spaniel, a deep undertone of burnished saddle, apricot, lemon, melon, kumquat. And, what’s this? Yes! Strawberries! Rushing in! Daisies, too. A snip from Safeway at £6.99.”
Jilly is, of course, doing it for fun and for our entertainment. Not so Donna Karan, the New York style and fashion person who has just launched DKNY The Fragrance for big bucks. What can you say about a perfume? To me, commercial scent is, at one end of the spectrum, harmlessly pleasant and, at the other, capable of clearing a lift.
Wisely, Donna does not attempt to describe the likely effects of her fragrance, but she rashly endeavours to capture its essence in words. So, for the DKNY girl, Donna set out to create a scent “to go with her denim – something for the edgier, funkier, more downtown aspects of her personality”. This, we are told, translates into an “uplifting scent which, along with the more conventional floral and green notes, such as daffodils, water lilies and freshly cut grass, includes an immediate hit of blood orange with a white T-shirt note in its base”.
All that in a bottle? Daffodils, lilies, grass – freshly mown at that – a blood orange and, at the bottom of each 50ml eau de parfum spray, one T-shirt, white, with note. Enough to make anyone edgier. Funkier, too.
“There are many traditional floral fragrances which are beautiful but rounder, more opulent and formal,” says Donna. “I wanted to create something with that same femininity but with a fresher, more urbane feeling.”
I see no contradiction between being round, opulent and formal in the manner of, say, a pork butcher of the old school, and being urbane. Perhaps she means “urban”, which has the same Latin root but chimes better with the downtown aspects she has bottled.
Jilly and Donna, in their different ways, face insurmountable problems in seeking to describe the indescribable and may be forgiven for the resulting gobbledygook.
Not so Sir Peter Middleton, group chairman of Barclays, and Matthew Barrett, group chief executive, whose interim report to shareholders appears to have been written by a computerised thesaurus on steroids.
Puzzled shareholders are invited to applaud “our unique debt-focused approach and global model”, to commend the “superiority in service quality and product proposition”, and to welcome efforts to bring “new customer applications to the market at scale” and “provide much wider functionality and information”.
Investors were doubtless relieved to read that the bank has “a proper fully integrated e-enablement strategy”. For what use would such a strategy be, its full integration notwithstanding, if it were improper?
“As a foundation for implementing value-based management, we have identified an initial structure of key lines of business in the Group, each of which will be tasked with achieving the highest possible value within the Group. Accordingly, each of these businesses and the corporate centre will explicitly base decision making on the standards of maximising shareholder value creation.”
As Jilly might say: “I’m getting verbiage, I’m getting obfuscation, I’m getting, yes, I’m getting flatulence, jargon, polysyllabic posturing, convolution and, here they come, adjectival nouns rushing in.”
Whatever happened to plain speaking? Happily, it still survives. Michael Peters, who has triumphed over disaster by creating a second, successful design business after the collapse of his first, recalls the “rather ugly lady from Security Pacific” – one of his backers – who arrived at his door when his fortunes were at their lowest and demanded her money back: “She was colossal. She had more hair on her face than I have on my legs. Her lack of beauty made up for her incredible aggressiveness.”
Perhaps it was her aggression that made up for her lack of beauty. But such a slip of the tongue is forgivable in a mind shaken by horrid recollection. Has, perchance, the hairy lady scared the men at Barclays? There can be no other excuse.