Ron's Owl, Society for the Protection of the English Language and Literature

Society for the Protection of the English Language and Literature.

Established in 1995.

A campaign to promote accurate use of our language.
Examples of ' gobbledygook ', 'legalese', 'technobabble', 'commercial' English and other abuses will be highlighted.

He who knows not & knows that he knows not. He is ignorant, teach him:
He who knows & knows that he knows. He is wise, honour him:
He who knows not & knows not that he knows not. He is a fool, despise him.
He who knows & knows not that he knows. He is asleep, wake him.
An old proverb, as relevant as ever.

A typical example occurred on the 29th of November 2002, a question was asked by a presenter of the BBC show Blue Peter. 'What do you call a bicycle with three wheels?'

This is a popular children's show, presented by adults who should know better. Hosted by an organisation that once took pride in its staff's command of English.

Young people stand little chance of learning our great language when such ignorance is shown by the country's number one broadcaster. Staff of this programme should be educated correctly.

For those who don't know, the word 'bicycle' (often abbreviated to bike) is made from two words. 'Bi', meaning two and 'cycle' (circle) which refers to a wheel. Literally 'two wheels'. It is obviously impossible to have a two wheeled machine with three wheels, or four. The term 'quad bike' was repeated many times during a TV programme in the latter half of 2003.

The programme subject was "Neighbours from hell" and featured a loutish lottery millionaire.

A more recent case involved a well known person injured in a quadracycle accident. Those repeating the inevitable 'quad bike' nonsense even included the presenter of 'News Night'. I expected better of him.

A question, does a quad bike have 2 rows of 4 wheels, 4 rows of 2 or is it 8 in a line? It sounds accident prone in any case.

Monday 29-3-4, ITV News Night, yet another 'quad bike' news item, just before 11:PM, a different presenter. What can one say?

Christmas period 2007, Still more "quad bike" nonsense, appearing in many newspapers and Web sites. Covering the tragic death of a young girl, on a quadracycle.

Ignorance still rules, O.K.

Motto: It is better to remain silent & be thought a fool. Rather than open one's mouth & confirm it.

To quote Albert Einstein, "Only two things are infinite, the Universe and human stupidity.
I am however, not sure about the Universe."

A list of words often used wrongly, and the correct meaning or context.
An indication of our population's 'Dumbing down'.

This section will be extended gradually.

Battery. This is of French origin and indicates an array or row. As in 'Battery of guns'. When primary electrical cells were first used, several connected vertically for higher Voltage were termed a Pile, also French. Later secondary cells, with liquid electrolyte, were used. These required containers which were stacked side by side for higher Voltage or current. The word Battery was adopted for this form.

This word is now used by an amazing number of people, many of whom should know better, when they actually mean a single CELL. This is equivalent to calling one cow a 'herd'.

Spiral, spiraling. A spiral has two basic forms. A helix, as in a screw thread or extension spring. Traced by a combination of circular motion and axial linear motion.

The other main form is traced by a combination of rotary and linear radial motion. As in a clock main or balance spring. Going round in ever decreasing, or increasing, circles.

The funnel cloud of a tornado is formed by winds following both types of spiral motion. Spiraling upwards and outwards.

The Oozlum Bird used to fly in spirals, prior to becoming extinct for that reason.

Our media has adopted the word, using it as frequently as they can manage. An article in The Independent today (27-5-8), about fuel price increases, uses 'spiralling' three times. The word is also used, in a similar way, during television reports.

They seem to think the word means 'increasing', ignorance rules supreme in the 21st century. In the age of communication, our writers have lost the ability to communicate intelligibly. Universal education has led to universal lack of education.

A price rise is a linear increase of cost, no rotary motion is involved. Usually prices rise 'geometrically', by steady percentage increments over time. As specified by the 'Index of inflation', a statistic frequently 'tweaked' by our Chancellor, thus bearing little resemblance to actual cost of living increases.

Video, pertaining to the visual component of a television signal or recording. Also part of the description of apparatus used. As in 'video amplifier', 'video tape (cassette) recorder', 'video tape recording', 'video camera' etc.

A widespread mistake is to use 'video' as a name for a video tape recording. Akin to the old use, in Britain, of 'transistor' to mean a radio. For those who don't know, a transistor is a small 3 legged component. Even worse, in Britain, 'video' is also used for the recording apparatus. In America this device is quite reasonably called a V.C.R. The Professional open reel type being a V.T.R.

Unfortunately the introduction of a country-wide education system has not resulted in an entirely educated populace. We now expect less of the average school leaver than Victorians expected of those 7 year olds lucky enough to receive an education.


What can one expect in a country where all of the 'Polytech' colleges have been redefined as Universities? So many words in our language have been diluted or 'watered down' in meaning. How do we now define a true centre of excellence & learning? Is it possible that such a body no longer exists in Britain?

Institutes of further or advanced education divide into two categories. On the one hand those which provide an environment conducive to 'pure' research and the pursuit of knowledge. That knowledge is not constrained by any need to find a commercial application for it, although such an application may be the outcome. Such a body is a traditional University & contributes to the wealth of human knowledge rather than material wealth per se.

On the other hand are those dedicated to the search for knowledge that can be put to commercial use. They also provide education for engineers, technicians and other professional people. They may undertake research aimed at improving control over our destiny & of course making a profit. This is a 'Polytech' or Technical College.

One of the latter may well achieve a similar standard of excellence to the former. In that case they sholud be entitled to the description 'University of Technology', this will inevitably be abbreviated to 'Unitech'.

This will be much better than calling all of them universities, which seems a ploy to make our government look good. Obviously they are able to say 'since taking power we have dramatically increased the number of universities'. In reality it is merely 'moving the goalposts', a manifestation of 'spin', I hope no-one is fooled.

An excellent web page from New Zealand covers part of this subject in a balanced way. I feel the author does not exactly agree with me on this issue, but provides an informed & interesting argument. Click the following link if you wish to see what he has to say, I hope you return here afterwards. < Keith Rankin's Thursday Column >

Acronyms, what they are and rules for their use.
Some common examples and mistakes in using them.

An acronym is a word made up from initial letters of a phrase, always correctly written in capital letters to indicate this.

If a group of intitials do not produce a usable word it is usual to pronounce the individual letters. Such as U.K. (United Kingdom) which is pronounced 'You-Kay'. The capital letters should each be followed by a full stop (period). Leaving out these punctuations indicates an acronym, rhyming with 'muck'.

U.S. (United States) is a similiar case. Removing the dots leaves US, the plural of I, especially confusing when used in upper case headlines etc.

A number of well known initial letter groups are commonly printed without full stops when the letter pronunciation is well known and 'flows' like an acronym. An example is LCD, (Liquid Crystal Display) pronounced 'ell-see-dee'. LED (Light Emmitting Diode) on the other hand looks as though it rhymes with 'bed'. It is sometimes pronounced that way, if this is not desired the dots are needed.

LCD, Liquid Crystal Display. The term LCD display is often used in advertisements & elewhere. This shows ignorance of what the acronym means. Less forgivable when used in technical literature, the writer should know better. This repeating of the last word in a phrase is often seen, defying logic

Other examples of such repetition:

MIDI, Musical Instrument Digital Interface. Self explanatory, a music communication protocol. MIDI interface is often written or said. The word 'midi' in lower case is a common abbreviation meaning middle sized or medium length. As in midi skirt, associated words; micro, mini & maxi.

SCSI, Small Computer Systems Interface, (usually 'SKUZZY'). A fast parallel means of coupling computers & peripherals. A similiar mistake, 'SCSI interface', is often made.

PIN, Personal Identification Number, the numeric equivalent to a password. Here, even computers have been 'taught' to repeat this pathetic human error. Many ATMs ask for a "PIN number" to be entered. With telephone banking, recorded messages often repeat the same mistake.

ATM, (aye-tee-em) Automatic Teller Machine, the almost ubiquitous "hole in the wall". An automatic (or automated) device for dispensing cash in response to a coded card. With digital data systems it is short for "Asynchronous Transfer Mode", a high speed transmission technique. In lower case it is an abbreviation for 'atmosphere', a unit of gas pressure. One atm is the average pressure of free air at sea level (14.7 PSI).

PSI, (pea-ess-iy) Pounds per Square Inch, the general unit of pressure for those of us who have not completely succumbed to the Metric System. If a weight of one pound is supported over an area of one square inch it exerts a pressure of one P.S.I. The full stops are usually considered optional, as it is obviously not an acronym.

Common words and phrases.
The true meaning and what advertisers mean or imply.

'Free'. Given away at no charge. Unrestricted. Remove restrictions or release etc. An abbreviation for 'free of charge'.

Advertisers' meaning:
Included in the price, as in 'comes with a free carry case'.
Only sold in multiples, as in 'buy one, get one free'.

Similar to the last is 'two for the price of one'.

Another use of 'free' occurs in disguised promotions. As when the 'small print' points out, often in a convoluted way, that the 'gift' or 'prize' is dependent on a specific purchase or contract.

As low as'. Meaning: 'More than, unless a large number of the cheapest option are purchased'. Commonly seen in sales brochures & lists. If a picture is included, it usually shows the most expensive option, 'a picture is worth a thousand lies'.

'From'. Similar to 'as low as', when used in a similar context.

Expert: 'A person with particular knowledge or ability. One who know their subject well or performs skilfully.'

Usual usage: One who passes themselves off as especially knowledgeable. A person taken with their own cleverness, a self specification. Phonetic root in this form: 'X', the unknown quantity; 'Spurt', a drip under pressure.

As with the British medical 'expert' recently in the news for ruining many mother's lives. By passing off his personal guesswork as scientific fact in court.

To be continued.


Gobbledygook. The incomprehensible or overblown jargon used by specialists* & civil servants.

Legalese. The abstruse writing style used in the legal profession. Characterised by words of uncertain meaning & a general lack of correct punctuation.

Technobabble. The excessive use of unnecessary jargon, common amongst 'technical' writers & prevalent in the computing press. A version is used by some 'audiophiles', magazine articles are often quite funny. Mainly because they are not meant to be.

Jargon. The private language of a particular group, profession or specialisation. Intended to prevent understanding by those outside the group. An example is 'rhyming slang', once used by Londoners.

Rhyming slang. Used a phrase or word couplet rhyming with the chosen word, then left out the rhyming part. In London it allowed locals to talk in public without being understood by wealthy passers by. Constantly updated & changed to maintain this advantage

Today, children's street slang has a similar agenda & strategy.

Specialist.* A specialist is someone who learns more & more about less & less. Until he knows everything about nothing.
If we make mistakes, as we may, you are welcome to let us know. Heartfelt thanks to all who have done so.
'Ere mate, we want everyone to talk proper, like wot we do.

We do not align ourselves with the aims of The Campaign for Plain English. That worthy organisation, known for its 'Crystal Mark', wishes simple, clear, straightforward English to be used. Literally reducing the language to the lowest common denominator, essential for public documents and forms.

We prefer the vast vocabulary and beauty of our language to be available for all to use. We agree with them that confusing, bad or incomprehensible English should be eliminated.


Ours is a campaign for good English.

Updated on the 31st of December 2007. Ron Lebar, Author.