EU English again

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A.S. sent in a link to the 2016 edition of Misused English words and expressions in EU publications, from the European Court of Auditors:

Over the years, the European institutions have developed a vocabulary that differs from that of any recognised form of English. It includes words that do not exist or are relatively unknown to native English speakers outside the EU institutions and often even to standard spellcheckers/grammar checkers (‘planification’, ‘to precise’ or ‘telematics’ for example) and words that are used with a meaning, often derived from other languages, that is not usually found in English dictionaries (‘coherent’ being a case in point). Some words are used with more or less the correct meaning, but in contexts where they would not be used by native speakers (‘homogenise’, for example). Finally, there is a group of words, many relating to modern technology, where users (including many native speakers) ‘prefer’ a local term (often an English word or acronym) to the one normally used in English-speaking countries, which they may not actually know, even passively (‘GPS’ or ‘navigator’ for ‘satnav’, ‘SMS’ for ‘text’, ‘to send an SMS to’ for ‘to text’, ‘GSM’ or even ‘Handy’ for ‘mobile’ or ‘cell phone’, internet key’, ‘pen’ or ‘stick’ for ‘dongle’, ‘recharge’ for ‘top-up/top up’, ‘beamer’ for projector etc.). The words in this last list have not been included because they belong mostly to the spoken language.

In fact we covered the 2013 edition of this document  ("In case of pigs and poultry…", 5/12/2013).But it's worth citing it again, for those who are might be in need of a little lexicological cheer this New Year's Eve.

My favorite of the cited lexical innovations is comitology, about which the 2016 report says

There are 1,253 instances of the word ‘comitology’ in EUR-Lex. However, not only does the word not exist outside the EU institutions, but it is formed from a misspelt stem (committee has two ‘m’s and two ‘t’s) and a suffix that means something quite different (ology/ logy means ‘the science of’ or ‘the study of’). It is therefore highly unlikely that an outsider would be able to deduce its meaning, even in context.

Wikipedia explains that

Comitology in the European Union refers to a process by which EU law is modified or adjusted and takes place within "comitology committees" chaired by the European Commission. The official term for the process is committee procedure. Comitology committees are part of the EU's broader system of committees that assist in the making, adoption, and implementation of EU laws.

But as I pointed out with respect to the 2013 edition, the OED has an entry for comitology, glossed as

Originally: the study of the organization and functions of committees. In later use also: committees and their practices considered collectively, now esp. in the context of the implementation of European Union legislation and policy.

with citations going back to 1956.

1956   C. N. Parkinson in Economist 3 Nov. 395/1   The Life cycle of the committee is so basic to our knowledge of current affairs that it is surprising that more attention has not been paid to the science of comitology.

Yes, THAT C.N. Parkinson, whose command of the English language is (in my opinion) not to be questioned. And as I noted in 2013, 1956 is well before the 1992 Maastricht Treaty — but I failed in the earlier post to underline the authoritative nature of both the author and the publisher of the foundational quotation.

I haven't been able to locate the 1956 Economist article, but the same material seems to appear as Chapter 4, "Directors and Councils, or Coefficient of Inefficiency", in the 1957 work Parkinson's Law, which begins

THE LIFE CYCLE of the committee is so basic to our knowledge of current  affairs that it is surprising more attention has not been paid to the  science of comitology. The first and most elementary principle of this science is that a committee is organic rather than mechanical in its nature:  it is not a structure but a plant. It takes root and grows, it flowers, wilts, and dies, scattering the seed from which other committees will bloom in their turn. Only those who bear this principle in mind can make real headway in understanding the structure and history of modern government.  

Committees, it is nowadays accepted, fall broadly into two categories, those (a) from which the individual member has something to gain; and those  (b) to which the individual member merely has something to contribute.  Examples of the B group, however, are relatively unimportant for our  purpose; indeed some people doubt whether they are committees at all. It is  from the more robust A group that we can learn most readily the principles  which are common (with modifications) to all.

Dr. Parkinson died on March 9, 1993, just about a year after the signing of the Maastricht Treaty. But we can pretend that his spirit has been able to enjoy watching the past 25 years of comitological evolution, perhaps in company with Niccolò Machiavelli and Vifredo Pareto.

 Update — As evidence of my own comitological expertise, I note that in a former life, after serving for several months on a committee to plan and implement a "Technology Portfolio Fair", which featured selected company researchers giving well-rehearsed demos of recent innovations to a crowd of line-organization vice presidents, I was appointed to a committee whose task was to "offer advice on the methodology for prioritizing the feedback" from that event. It's possible that at some subsequent point, a methodology was chosen for prioritizing the feedback, and that the feedback was duly prioritized. It's even possible that some actions were eventually taken based on that prioritized feedback. But before the fate of our methodological advice was revealed, I had moved on to another life.


  1. Mark Etherton said,

    December 31, 2016 @ 10:00 am

    I think the Economist article is the same as the essay in Parkinson's Law: at least the first two paragraphs are identical, except that at the end of the first sentence in the Economist, there is an asterisk to a footnote that reads "Why 'comitology,' instead of 'committology'? Well, why not?". It is the only footnote in the article.

  2. David Eddyshaw said,

    December 31, 2016 @ 10:14 am

    In my youth I thought Parkinson's discussion of committees was satirical. Years of sitting on committees have taught me that it is in fact documentary.

    I would also warmly recommend his insightful account of shortlisting and interviewing (especially the mechanism for appointing a new official translator in Chinese for the Foreign Office, with its conclusion that the very act of applying for the post demonstrates the candidate's unsuitability.)

  3. D.O. said,

    December 31, 2016 @ 10:15 am

    From Preface "…my comments are mainly designed for […] those who need, or want, their output to be understood by people outside the European institutions, particularly in our two English-speaking member states."

    Not for long now. But it was written in May, before the fateful vote.

  4. David Eddyshaw said,

    December 31, 2016 @ 11:06 am

    It's a bit of a mixture, ranging from expressions which are just typical L2 errors but perfectly clear to a native speaker, like the wonky prepositions, through to quite significantly misleading misuses of English words as if they meant the same as the corresponding (usually) French (like "actual" for "actuel", "so-called" for "soi-disant", "punctual" for "ponctuel"), to bureaucratic jargon of the sort which is unfortunately by no means confined to the EU (a lot of his pet-hate mass-noun-used-as-count-noun stuff is drearily familiar to anybody who has to cope with British indigenous governmental gobbledegook.)

    Inexplicably peculiar English in Europe isn't confined to EU institutions. You see it in (expensive!) textbooks and published papers which a generation ago would have been written in perfect German (say), but nowadays appear in an English which has plainly never been run past a native speaker (not even by the moneygrubbing publisher.) There seems to be a large cohort of L2 users whose English is so good that they don't realise that it's not quite as good as they imagine, so that they don't seek help when they need it. Sadly, Brits are so bad at foreign languages that the converse problem doesn't arise …

  5. Rod Johnson said,

    December 31, 2016 @ 11:15 am

    I encourage people to read this document, because, frankly, halfway through the A's, it has me scratching my head. Action is an uncountable noun? Not for me. And how about "An agenda is ‘a list or programme of things to be done or considered’. It is not a book in which you write down your appointments"? Is that not a common usage, quite unconnected to the EU? Or the objection to anti-, which suggests that it is superfluous in expressions like "anti-crime office" (seems like a pretty neutral stylistic choice to me).

    In 2013, Mark said this was "a bit fussy in spots," but this seems like a massive understatement. It feels more like a portfolio of peevery with some occasional valid points, like raisins in spotted dick.

    [(myl) Fair enough — and congratulations for what I suspect is the first ever turn of phrase in which a pudding is transfigured as a portfolio!]

  6. Theophylact said,

    December 31, 2016 @ 11:17 am

    A number of the "preferred" terms actually are the ones normally used in English-speaking countries, unless you mean "in the UK". "Satnav" may be a better term than the opaque "GPS", but the latter is the only one I've ever heard used in the US by native speakers. "Top up" I've only heard used with liquids, usually gasoline (not "petrol").

  7. CuConnacht said,

    December 31, 2016 @ 11:36 am

    Does the dialect have a name? Euglish? Euroglish?

  8. V said,

    December 31, 2016 @ 12:09 pm

    Yeah, what a strange document! It's a spectrum from things that are decidedly "wrong" and extremely confusing to native English speakers (e.g. "dispose of" used to mean "possess"), to things that are nothing more than subjective style advice ("‘To do’ is a rather weak word: ‘to perform’ and ‘to carry out’ are often better").

    I wish the authors had restrained themselves to the former category.

  9. Rodger C said,

    December 31, 2016 @ 12:21 pm

    Surely comitology is the study of companions. Or counts.

  10. Zeppelin said,

    December 31, 2016 @ 12:25 pm

    Most of the nouns they complain about in that introduction paragraph look like Germanisms to me, namely "handy", "beamer", "GPS", "stick" and "SMS". With the possible exception of "handy" I don't think many Germans are aware that those English words aren't used the same way by native (British) English speakers.

    But yeah, this mostly looks like a fairly feeble, peevish attempt by native speakers to lay claim to a language that has become an international lingua franca because they're worried their native speaker privilege is slipping.

  11. John said,

    December 31, 2016 @ 12:39 pm

    I lived in the US for two years and still regularly interact with native English speakers from the US. I've never even heard of the word "satnav"–everybody calls it a GPS.

  12. Bob Ladd said,

    December 31, 2016 @ 12:46 pm

    @Zeppelin: With the exception of "handy", I don't see why you think the words you list are Germanisms. I have run into "beamer" in a number of European countries (in all of which, as David Eddyshaw noted, the people who say "beamer" are dumbfounded when they learn that native speakers of English may have no idea what they are talking about); "SMS" is normal in Italian and (I think) in other non-German countries; etc.

  13. Robert said,

    December 31, 2016 @ 12:53 pm

    I am a native speaker of BrEng, and I think there is much to be said for two common Gallicisms, using "precise" and "explicit" as verbs. When reading French mathematical papers, I often want to translate these into English exactly as verbs, even though these are not commonly verbed in English. "Precise" overlaps with the usual "make precise" and "specify" without actually meaning quite the same as either, and similarly I often want to say things like "we will explicit the side conditions later". Since nouns are commonly verbed in English anyway, I don't really get the objection, it seems to be purely nationalistic.

  14. Jamie said,

    December 31, 2016 @ 1:04 pm

    I had always assumed that satnav was an Americanism! My impression (maybe mistaken) is that GPS is more common in the UK.

  15. David Eddyshaw said,

    December 31, 2016 @ 1:22 pm

    I too like the French verb "préciser", for its aura of Gallic logic, but it actually illustrates the problem: it *doesn't* mean "make precise", but something more like "make clear."

    On Zeppelin's point that this is all a cri de coeur from les Anglo-Saxons afraid of losing their linguistic droit de seigneur, while I'm sure there's an element of that, especially in the case of things like "SMS" (or "handy" – I'd love to call my mobile phone a "handy", except that only Germans would understand me) there's the problem that in general there isn't any single established external common reference point for the meaning of English other than the usage of native speakers. So if you say "punctual" when you actually mean "intermittent" people all over the world are going to misunderstand you unless they're also French (and maybe even then, if they speak better English than you.)

    Now if English were a dead language (and between Brexit and The Donald, who knows what time will bring…?)

  16. D.O. said,

    December 31, 2016 @ 1:54 pm

    As usual there are different gradations of wrongness. From "a reader will likely get the intended meaning wrong even in context" to "this is a dispreferred variant and it will grate native speakers if used often" (we can have something like "the meaning can be obscure if the sentence is read in isolation", "people will understand you, but will be annoyed by the mental effort it will take", "the meaning is clear, but the text will provide irrelevant sense of levity" for the intermediate cases) . Every level of misfit is worth commenting on, but if they all done under the same banner, it does strike like a bit of peevery.

  17. peterv said,

    December 31, 2016 @ 2:10 pm

    Well, the mobile communications messaging service was called SMS before it was ever called text. It was designed, specifically and explicitly, for use in emergencies, with the expectation by the designers that it would be used by governments to notify their citizens of rare national emergencies, such as earthquakes or military invasions. The designers were mobile telecommunications engineers, with not a single teenager among them.

  18. Guy said,

    December 31, 2016 @ 2:57 pm

    Some of those words are the standard term in US English – "GPS" and "recharge", in particular. As a US speaker I've never heard "satnav" before, and "top-up" is distinctly British (in the US you might say you will "top *off*" a gas tank, but not a battery) I've also heard "stick" and "pen" refer to USB flash drives, which are sometimes also called dongles, although many people complain that they aren't dongles and shouldn't be called that. Given that the UK is leaving the EU, one might expect them to transition more to US standards in the future.

  19. Bob Ladd said,

    December 31, 2016 @ 3:12 pm

    @Guy: I doubt that Brit-Am differences on this stuff have much to do with the EU. When mobile cellular telephony started to become widespread, BritEng settled on mobile while AmEng went with cell (phone). Given the range of terms in European languages (including Dutch mobieltje and Italian cellulare), I don't see any reason for attributing the difference to European influence. Another new technology where Brit and Am differ is that Americans invariably talk about an ATM, whereas British speakers still have a range of terms – in my experience cash machine is most common, but there are other terms, and ATM is probably widely understood. And BritEng still hasn't settled on a term for 'USB flash drive', though I don't know if AmEng has either. But lots of other new terms (like laptop) are the same in all varieties of English I'm familiar with, and laptop, at least, is as much of an outlier in a European context as German Handy.

  20. Vireya said,

    December 31, 2016 @ 3:30 pm

    As someone who always says SMS and GPS, and for whom re-charge and top-up are interchangeable, I'm very confused by the list of "misused" English. I've never even been to Europe. But to me a beamer is a BMW, so I would find it amusing to hear someone using it to mean a projector.

  21. Mr Punch said,

    December 31, 2016 @ 4:17 pm

    Agree with Guy on US usages; I'd add that "topping off" a gasoline tank refers to a refill when the tank is not close to empty.

  22. Rod Johnson said,

    December 31, 2016 @ 4:39 pm

    Ha, Mark. I did notice my conflation of luggage and dessert but couldn't decide which one should get the axe, so in the spirit of the season I spared both.

  23. Rose Eneri said,

    December 31, 2016 @ 4:52 pm

    As an Am English speaker, I agree that a beamer is a BMW and top off means adding gas to a tank that is not low. e.g. I'm going to top off the tank before I leave for my long drive so I don't have to stop during the trip. And, I think a usage is wrong only when it will not be understood. I would think comitology would be the branch of cosmology devoted to the study of comets.

  24. Jen said,

    December 31, 2016 @ 4:56 pm

    If a native English speaker told me that they were topping up their phone, I would assume that they were adding money to a PAYG account, not power to a battery – I assumed the mistake was using 'recharge' to mean the former (through confusion with charge?).

  25. Robot Therapist said,

    December 31, 2016 @ 5:34 pm

    What Jen said. Topping up a mobile phone is adding money, not electricity.

  26. Peter Taylor said,

    December 31, 2016 @ 7:52 pm

    @Jen, it's not confusion with charge but calquing from languages which use a cognate of recharge for putting credit on a pre-paid card of any kind. E.g. in Spanish I use recargar for putting credit on my bus card.

  27. James Wimberley said,

    December 31, 2016 @ 8:06 pm

    I thought a BMW is a beemer not a beamer.

  28. philip said,

    December 31, 2016 @ 9:01 pm

    I am really surprised at the poor level if translation skills evident in some of these examples. From the irish language competitions for translators in the EU, you would get the impression that all EU translators are the hottest of merdes chaudes.

  29. David Eddyshaw said,

    December 31, 2016 @ 11:03 pm


    I think the more egregious examples are not from the professional translators (who are indeed very, very good) but the ordinary Joes/Josés/Giuseppes/Josephs/Josefs just doing their best with English qua interlingua. As far as the suboptimal translations of officialese go, while those are presumably the work of professionals, it seems to me to be a major mitigating point that the originals are themselves in no real human language.

  30. V said,

    January 1, 2017 @ 4:24 am

    I've never heard anyone call a projector a "beamer", European or American.

  31. Noam said,

    January 1, 2017 @ 9:32 am

    Beamer is the name of a latex class for making slides, and Wikipedia attributes the name to a German term for a computer display projector, but I've never heard it used otherwise either. Most of the Europeans I interact with aren't Germans, though.

  32. Brett said,

    January 1, 2017 @ 10:04 am

    Here's what I said about the status of "beamer" in 2013:

    The example of "beamer" is interesting. I don't know if it will become a native English word, but it certainly seems to be part of standard technical German now. When I was giving a talk at a major German research facility, I had to figure out the controls for the AV equipment in the seminar room. The various buttons (for the lights, screen, etc.) were all labeled in German, and the one for the projector was labeled "beamer." I later discussed the word with several of my hosts, and they all knew already that it (like "handy" for a phone) was not actually an English word.

  33. Rodger C said,

    January 1, 2017 @ 12:20 pm

    To me a beamer is an instrument made from a deer's legbone that Native Americans used for stretching hides. I own a handsome one in perfect condition which I found in a collapsed basement foundation.

  34. Robot Therapist said,

    January 1, 2017 @ 2:21 pm

    To me, the computer projector was always referred to as a "Barco". This was a brand name, but they were called that whatever the brand.

  35. philip said,

    January 1, 2017 @ 4:10 pm

    Fairy Nuff @ David Eddyshaw. the 'actual / actuel' is one I hear from French speakers a lot, but not usually in written translations.

  36. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 2, 2017 @ 8:20 am

    I wonder if there's a "physician, heal thyself" issue here, because "Court of Auditors" is a rather puzzling-sounding English name for the EU agency in question, and seems at least in part to be an unidiomatic calque of the French "Cour des comptes" w/o consideration of how the modern semantic scopes of English "court" and French "cour" may not be 100% co-extensive. A little googling suggests that lots of Francophone countries have such a "cour" at the national level, but their institutional counterparts in Anglophone countries (as inferred from common membership in INTOSAI — which is the rather Bond-villain-sounding "International Organization of Supreme Audit Institutions") tend to have names like "National Audit Office" or "Office of the Auditor-General" or (in the U.S.) "Government Accountability Office," presided over by the "Comptroller General."

  37. Yuval said,

    January 2, 2017 @ 1:31 pm

    Well, is peevology the study of peeves?

  38. Belial Issimo said,

    January 2, 2017 @ 3:03 pm

    Or the study of beer.

  39. mollymooly said,

    January 2, 2017 @ 8:04 pm

    @Robot Therapist:

    Topping up a mobile phone is adding money, not electricity.

    I agree, but on the other hand adding money is called "recharging" by many Australians.

    @D. O.:

    "in our two English-speaking member states."
    Not for long now.

    Besides the UK and Ireland, Malta also has English as an official language. Of course, most Maltese are ESL speakers.

  40. George said,

    January 3, 2017 @ 6:12 am

    I first heard 'beamer' used for a projector in Southern Africa, by a person raised in a Portuguese-speaking home in South Africa but who grew up speaking English as their main language outside the home. It stuck in my mind because I remember wondering how exactly we were supposed to get a BMW up the stairs to the conference room.

    I think I've also heard it used by South Africans whose first language is unambiguously English but maybe someone could, ahem, shed some light on that?

  41. George said,

    January 3, 2017 @ 6:14 am

    P.S. While I would rarely have any reason to do so, I would write it 'beemer' if referring to the car.

  42. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    January 3, 2017 @ 9:16 am

    J.W. Brewer: I don't think one could simply replace 'Court of Auditors' with 'Audit Office' or the like, since the Court of Auditors is a body with a fixed set of members and regular meetings, things that would not normally be true of an office.

    One might think that 'Court' is still inappropriate, and 'Board' or 'Council' would be better; but 'Court' is sometimes used for things akin to boards, e.g. the Court of Directors of the Bank of England.

  43. ajay said,

    January 3, 2017 @ 12:42 pm

    Many of those criticisms seem completely wrongheaded.
    "Telematics" may not be a common word in everyday conversation but it's a generally understood technical term in communications and vehicle design, and has been for many years now.
    There's an important distinction between a "GPS" and a "satnav" – a GPS simply tells you where you are, a satnav also tells you which way to go. Not all GPSs are satnavs. Not all text messages are SMSs; what about text messages through, for example, Instant Messenger or WhatsApp? And, of course, GSM is one particular mobile phone standard (now superseded). US mobile phones never, as far as I know, used GSM.

  44. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 3, 2017 @ 3:50 pm

    The spelling I have in the back of my mind for nickname-for-BMW is neither beemer nor beamer but Bimmer. And it is a testament to the awesomeness of the internet that via the google books corpus I was able to find an entry for "beemer" in a reference book entitled "Car and Motorcycle Slang" (Poteet & Poteet, 2000) confirming that "Bimmer" was indeed the spelling traditionally preferred by Road & Track and similar car-enthusiast magazines where I would have first been exposed to the usage back in the late 70's as a not-yet-licensed-to-drive teenager.

  45. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 3, 2017 @ 4:12 pm

    The East India Company also had a "Court of Directors," which is some evidence that that was a reasonably idiomatic English phrase as of several centuries back, when "court" perhaps had a broader semantic scope in English than it currently does. But the EU is a new enough thing one would not expect archaisms in the English names of its component parts, although I suppose awkward and unidiomatic translation from French in the English names of its component parts should not be particularly unexpected. Whether the names in other languages are better would be an interesting question. I can tell from wikipedia that, e.g., the Finnish name of the institution is the Euroopan tilintarkastustuomioistuin, but alas lack any aesthetic sense for whether that sounds idiomatic or clunky to a native-speaker Finnish ear.

  46. Joshua K. said,

    January 3, 2017 @ 10:18 pm

    There's a footnote to the entry on "comitology":

    Yes, I am aware that Parkinson first used the term in 1955, but (a), he meant something different and (b) he was being funny.

  47. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    January 4, 2017 @ 9:27 am

    There are other examples of 'court' for a board, e.g. the governing bodies of Scottish universities.

    But in any case, I there's a difference between using regular words, like 'action' or 'intervention', in an odd way, and giving an unusual name to an institution. There, I think they can reasonably say 'It's our institution, and we can call it what we like'. Many institutions have odd names, whose meanings you wouldn't guess from the ordinary English use of the words. I would guess that 'Court' is meant to suggest something which, though not actually a court of justice, is in some way like one, operating independently of the regular executive and legislative structures.

  48. Brett said,

    January 4, 2017 @ 12:26 pm

    @ajay: What I had to say about "GPS" versus "satnav" in 2013:

    [T]he standard expectation is now that a GPS unit will have a navigation function. This was not the case when I bought my first GPS transciever, about a decade ago, but thanks to Moore's Law, it cost of the added functionality seems to have dropped to essentially nil. "Satnav" I have heard, but I don't think it's standard in American English. However, it's meaning is pretty transparent, although I would have guessed it was probably a trade name rather than a generic term.

  49. Andrew Bay said,

    January 4, 2017 @ 3:01 pm

    If I were just looking at the word "Comitology", I would either make it fall into a study of Comets with a misspelling or the study of committing as in to conclude on a decision. The Comitology of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" is a study on how the contestants selected their final answer.

    (Or the study of both mittens in pairs.)

  50. Graeme said,

    January 5, 2017 @ 2:49 am

    Isn't English 'committee' an adaptation of French 'comité' – and 'comité' is used in Spanish too. If so 'comitology' in an an EU context seems a natural bit of Creole or Créole. Linguistic comity…

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