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16 November 2012

Forget about last week and its focus on mega-elections – president of America, Archbishop of Canterbury, Coptic Christian pope, run-up to the new boss of China, etc – forget all that because this week is the week that has been simply owned by amusing political phraseology. For that read political language – because that’s the real deal. The genuine heartland of politics is language, not people or places or promises; it’s all about talking, not doing.

The trials, tribulations and general tits-up at the BBC have had their own share of protective political language – of euphemism – of a coy linguistic veneer. The director general of the BBC, for example, didn’t resign: he “stepped down”. Stepping down’s good, isn’t it? I mean, it’s not great. It’s not as good as not stepping down, but it’s miles better than “resigning” and light years better than “being fired”. You might of course be told, in private, that you’ll be fired unless you resign, in which case all parties will agree on the correct amount of descent to practice. Stepping down implies a gradual, considered action that is oh so different to being unceremoniously dropped.

There was another sort of stepping being done at Britain’s troubled broadcasting behemoth this week, though. The BBC’s head of news, Helen Boaden, and her deputy Stephen Mitchell performed a lateral manoeuvre as they “stepped aside”. If stepping down is going, but nicely, then stepping aside is pausing, purposefully. Stepping aside is what you do when a waiter has too many glasses on his tray and you let him through the thoroughfare in a busy bar. Stepping aside is what you do when you’re working late and the cleaner’s Hoover is in danger of sucking your shoes off. Stepping aside is what you do to allow someone to clear up.

And stepping aside is a lovely way of getting chastised in such a way as to seem that you’re simply enabling someone to vacuum under your desk for stray Post-its and runaway staples. Indeed, there was so much steadfast and enthusiastic movement around the floors of the BBC this week that it seemed as if its flagship Saturday night staple, Strictly Come Dancing, had taken over the entire corporation rather than just studio one at TV Centre.

Better still, this week the Oxford Dictionary announced its word of the year. A word that once might have been zeitgeist, and in that style attempts to bottle the philological atmosphere of the year in a single zinging term. With a drum roll please, let us announce then that 2012’s word of the year is… omnishambles. I’ll defer now to the Oxford Dictionary itself: “Coined by the writers of satirical television programme The Thick Of It, an omnishambles is a situation that has been comprehensively mismanaged and is characterised by a string of blunders and miscalculations.”

There you have it. Of course, fans of the show, a BBC hit that could now be set at the broadcaster itself rather than in the offices of the British government and opposition, will know that omnishambles is a piece of brilliance delivered by the hyper-aggressive political spin doctor Malcolm Tucker in a regular moment of apoplectic rage to describe yet another political mess. The word had its de facto political moment in the sun in April this year when the leader of the opposition described the government’s budget as an omnishambles during prime minister’s questions. Like all references to pop culture in the House of Commons it got a pretty rapturous response (see also David Cameron’s “Calm down dear,” referencing a series of mega-naff insurance commercials starring film director and bon viveur Michael Winner).

Omnishables seems a great and pithy way to sum up 2012 for many of us. Before we all go dancing – whether stepping aside or down – let us spare a though for the winning word from 2005. And it seemed like a white-hot concept back then. And the winner was? Podcast.


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