Lessons and learnings

David Benson-Pope
David Benson-Pope
Government reports are a fertile breeding ground for language fads from 'going forward' to 'blue sky thinking'. One Dunedin city councillor has had enough, and banned the word `learnings' from meeting he controls. But David Loughrey discovered the word is anything but a recent phenomenon.

Dunedin city councillor David Benson-Pope has declared war on the word ''learnings'', a word which has become pervasive in government and local government documents.

Cr Benson-Pope goes as far as describing those who use it as ''jumped up'' and ''self-important''.

He asks why they don't just use what he says is the perfectly acceptable word ''lessons''.

He also believes he knows exactly who introduced ''learnings'' into New Zealand government circles.

But University of Otago linguistics department programme co-ordinator Anne Feryok says the word has been around for more than 600 years, and those concerned about its use are reacting to continuing language change.

''Learnings'' is often used in government documents as a noun, referring to lessons gained from an event or conference.

Bureaucrats talk of ''key learnings'' from a conference, for instance.

Cr Benson-Pope's opposition to the word was mentioned at a recent council committee meeting, after a briefing in which he called for its use to stop.

He said later he was keen on accuracy and clear language.

''I have an understanding, if not an obsession, with precision in language and accuracy, which drives my family mad, but that's the way it is.''

The former Labour MP said he noticed the word appearing in reports when he was minister of social development in 2005.

''I tracked it down to this French guy we had on secondment, working in the Ministry of Social Development, who I think had just made it up - he thought it was a word.

''I kept seeing it in reports sourced from him, or that he had been involved in.''

From there, the word travelled to the Department of Education, and ''away it went''.

''That's my understanding of how it got so pervasive.

''I've always thought it's the most ridiculous thing, because we've got a word called `lesson', which is perfectly good.''

Cr Benson-Pope said it was ''embarrassing to cast yourself as a pedant or the grammar police all the time''.

However, jargon had always seemed to him to mean ''I don't really have an answer''.

''It's jumped-up, it's self important and ridiculous.''

Dr Feryok, however, had a quite different attitude towards what appears to be a return of a very old word, rather than the creation of a new one.

She said ''learnings'' could be found used as a noun as far back as 1483, meaning a lesson, or instruction.

She said many people had a ''prescriptivist'' attitude towards grammar.

That meant they were inclined to think the best of language they were familiar with, or had been taught was correct, and failed to ''feel sympathy with language that is unfamiliar''.

''There were fads and fashion in language, as there was anywhere else.

''Language is in constant flux.

''English has always been open to influences, and its global role has rapidly increased the range of those influences.

''Its openness may even be its strength, as adaptability to new circumstances benefits survival.''

Dr Feryok said it was inevitable English would change.

''A lot of us, as we get older, feel a little bit out of the loop when we come across these things - I include myself among these people, but I know to keep these thoughts to myself.''

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