Monday, 27 July 2020

Behaviours. Ugly Words No. 2

Recently, I wrote about a truly ugly word, fulsome. Here’s another one, a word with a touch of superiority, a whiff of academia about it, a word that has been expropriated from its professional field into everyday vocabulary by people who wish to elevate their discourse a little. Or it may have slipped in unawares. It’s a word necessary and acceptable in its singular form, but, unless you’re a scientist in the lab, to be avoided in the plural — behaviours. It is, of course a favourite word of politicians. Lord Bethell, the British Minister of Health, commented today on the likelihood of a second wave of the Virus:

Track and trace on its own, with or without an app, is not enough to prevent a second wave. The only thing that can do that are the behaviours of the British people themselves, and a commitment to hygiene, distancing and isolation are the best [protections] we have against this horrible disease.


The plural is quite unnecessary here, and using the singular would have removed one of the two subject-verb disagreements in the paragraph.


The question is, of course, why does “behaviour” need a plural?

Here are two definitions of behaviour from our venerable Canadian Oxford Dictionary, the last edition before former Prime Minister Harper, in his ignorance, cut its funding.

Behaviour 1 a The way one conducts oneself; manners. b the treatment of others; moral conduct. 2 The way in which a vehicle, machine, chemical substance, etc., acts or works. 3 Psych. an observable pattern of actions of a person, animal etc., especially in response to a stimulus.

The plural is justified, if at all, only in the third meaning: if the subject of the experiment displays different patterns of action to different stimuli, then these might be called different behaviours. 

But when a teacher tells parents that their child is displaying anti-social behaviours, isn’t he, as Australians would say, a bit up himself? The student's actions would constitute behaviour under definition 1. No need for the plural.  Nor is it necessary in describing the actions of the British people in the extract from Lord Bethell’s speech, which should have read:


The only thing that can [prevent a second wave] is the behaviour of the British people themselves.


Unless you are an experimental scientist in the lab, use behaviour only in the singular.

Mixed Metaphor

Elsewhere in his comments, Lord Bethell uses a interesting mixed metaphor. He must have borrowed a lever from Mike Pence’s toolbox, but instead of using it, he looks at it:


The particular lever that we are focused on is trying to get our message out to hard-to-reach communities who may not have heard the important messages on hygiene, on social distancing and on isolation....

Imagine a peer, peering through his monocle at a long lever: at one end, the government pushing down; at the other, an important health message being thrust into a-hard-to reach community. It’s like a cartoon from Punch.

Never mind that the hard-to-reach community is more likely a hard-to-comply community; a denser population forced to work in low-paying jobs in crowded conditions.

For other unusual metaphors, see climate change action lens and a Colonoscopy of Democrats.

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