Blogging and writing

Plain English, please!

In an excellent post on his blog, brewer Tom Cizauskas recently made a compelling case for plain English in beer writing.

Yes, it’s important to preserve the historical terminology; yes, some of the words are just plain fun to use (“spile” is a favourite of ours); and, yes, people who are into this will know what most of them mean.

But often, that rarefied vocabulary is used as a way to lord it over others and to exclude them, just like political jargon or street slang. It’s an obvious sign of the “If I can just stop you there to make a minor correction, young lady” mentality we’ve written about here.

Watching Neil Morrissey and his mate on TV this week as they struggled to understand the brewing instructions from this book really brought this point home — why the hell should anyone who didn’t grow up in the 16th century know what “turbid” means?

13 replies on “Plain English, please!”

It’s good to come across words you don’t know from time to time – if you didn’t, you wouldn’t continue to expand your vocabulary. I don’t think I agree with you at all, to be honest.

Having just read the article by Tom, I don’t think he puts over a compelling case at all. I agree we shouldn’t use exclusive language, but nor should we dumb it down too much for the blog audiences we are aiming at. They generally know the score. I write a beer blog and I will continue to use beer terminology, not to exclude, but to accurately describe my subject.

I’m all for expanding vocabularies, but it seems to me a bit lazy and snooty to casually use a specialist term and expect the reader to go away and find out what it means. That’s often done, I think, with the implication that anyone who doesn’t already know is an amateur and probably an idiot.

We’re not aiming what we write only at beer geeks, and we’re certainly not trying to exclude people who are (like us) still finding their way around beer, so we’ll probably continue to try to explain specialist terminology when we use it.

I’m not a fan of dumbing things down when it comes to writing about beer or any other technical aspect. I’m not suggesting the language should be impenetrable, but reading should be an educational experience, for me at any rate, and discovering new terms and words and ideas is the best part of it.

As for the lads on the tv not knowing what turbid meant, well, that has nothing to do with beer. They just need to broaden their vocabulary.

OK I agree with you about not using specialist terms you’d only know if you were well acquainted with the esoteric subject matter (jargon, if you like). Such terms should be used only if explained. Apart from the obvious ticker journals, I think the better blogs about beer – like this one, for example – will be read by lots of people who wouldn’t know their spile from their keystone.

However, the example you cite – the use of the world “turbid” – is a poor one, if that’s the point being made. It isn’t a brewing-specific, technical term. Its a simply a word most people don’t know. Some of my favourite words in the English language aren’t known to most people. I don’t intend to stop using them.

Nice word, turbid, though. I think we should use it more widely. As in that’s a pretty turbid shade of pink . . . That plant looks a bit turbid, I’d water it if I were you . . . Sheer turbidity! And so on . . .

I’m all for plain English in beer writing – tell me a beer is citric and I can understand the taste; tell me it has an essence of thinly sliced grapefruit draped in brown sugar and you’re into needless showboating. Tell me it’s citric because it uses the Chinook hop and I might have learned something.

And sometimes you need to use a historical or technical term. Diacetyl isn’t just about a buttery taste, it’s the way the drink feels in your mouth. Turbidity explains *why* a liquid is cloudy. Spiles and keystones are necessary historic terms when describing casks. Explain the term if you think it’ll be misunderstood. If you’re having to explain every third word, you’re writing for the wrong audience.

Since one definition of “turbid” is “characterized by or producing obscurity”, it’s quite a good word to be using in this debate … personally I’m not going to start explaining abv or OG in every blog I write, and if that makes my writing more turbid, turf.

Is ‘turbid’ anymore illuminating in this context than ‘cloudy’? I couldn’t explain the difference between the two words except to say that one is usually used in relation to beer. I’ve never come across it in any other context. Diacetyl doesn’t convey anything whatsoever to me, let alone how a beer will feel in my mouth. Not that buttery is much clearer.

Zythophile — that kind of sums up my point — if you are aiming what you write at people who are already scholars in the field, or you don’t care whether people can understand it, then it doesn’t matter what vocabulary you use or whether you explain it. If you want to include beginners or those with a casual interest, and you don’t want to be misunderstood, plain English is the way to go.

A reasonable compromise in the wonderful world of the internet, of course, is simply to link technical words to a decent description somewhere else.

Lucky me – I struggle enough to get my meaning across in English. If I use obscure words, it might be because I don’t know any synonyms, just to cover up gaps in my knowledge or, most likely, memory lapse due to beer intake.

But, seriously, there is a weird and wonderful universe of beer blogs, and we all try to find a place where we feel comfortable. Some are more technical than others, but that is as it should be.

Just to add one more thing:

Q: “why the hell should anyone who didn’t grow up in the 16th century know what “turbid” means?”

A: Because they’ve read novels that aren’t written by Tony Parsons.

I’ve read the odd book in my time, and still only ever come across the word turbid in How to Brew 50 Great English Morris Dances in your Beard by Geoff Beard and Ian Morris.

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