Boris Johnson’s roadmap is leading us in metaphorical circles | David Mitchell

The government’s way with words highlights a tussle between two lamentable aspects of our society

Recently, you will probably have been thinking a lot about the roadmap. I know I have. How’s the roadmap going? Is the roadmap working? Is the roadmap too cautious? Is the roadmap too reckless? Are we going to be able to stick to the roadmap? Or will we have to depart from elements of the roadmap? And, for me, the biggest question about the roadmap: why the hell is it called a roadmap? Some cosmic joke has made us say this silly word over and over again with total seriousness, like an exhausted tabloid newspaper typesetter humourlessly talking about boobs.

Having already overused the term “lockdown”, why the need to flee to a whole other continent of cliche to name the extrication strategy? Maybe something with keys might be more appropriate? A keyup? An upkey? It sounds positive and it’s much less promiscuous in its use of metaphor. But the prime minister has no problem with promiscuity and has cheerfully embraced, among many other things, this grim snatch of management speak as totally fit for purpose going forward.

I know it isn’t the first thing to be called a roadmap. There’s maps with roads on them, for a start. I’m comfortable with that. The maps invariably also depict other landmarks but roads are foregrounded to make the maps particularly helpful to people planning routes via road and less of a priority purchase for cross country runners, followers of ley lines and bargees.

Then something awful happened. Someone, while looking for a name for a sort of plan devised to achieve a particular aim – or to put it more succinctly “a plan” – decided, somewhat eccentrically, that the word “plan” would not do. Coincidentally, plan can sometimes mean map – as in a “street plan” – so maybe that’s where the roadmap idea came from? This person probably thought that a roadmap is something that shows you how to get somewhere, so might be an appropriate metaphor.

I take issue with the person in two ways. First, why roadmap and not just map? Why is this metaphorical showing of the way reserved for metaphorical motorists? Is it the subliminal influence of car manufacturers, implying that the only solution to any problem involves driving?

And second: maps, or roadmaps, don’t show you the way anywhere, they just show you where places are in relation to one another. You then have to find the way. A map is merely a pictorial statement of the situation. What the person was thinking of wasn’t a roadmap but a set of directions. “Turn right at the pub”, “follow the road to the left”, “at the end of the second wave, go straight on” etc.

But of course a set of directions out of lockdown, or a set of directions for peace in the Middle East, doesn’t have the required corporate ring. It’s more notepad-by-the-phone than multimedia-presentation. The national appetite was for more of a Germanic nounsmash. The UK is a country, let us not forget, whose leaders have contrived to name its highest level crisis briefings after a non-native venomous snake. So there really is no limit to our unbearable naffness.

I was reflecting on Britain’s use of language because of the news that people who are in prison are now going to be referred to as prisoners. Seems fair enough but apparently, of late, they haven’t always been. The terms residents, supervised individuals, service users and clients have increasingly been adopted. This practice obviously has the potential to irritate those rightwingers for whom it smacks of political correctness, so prisons minister Alex Chalk has seized the opportunity to draw attention to it and then heroically quash it.

I absolutely think that people who are in prison should be called prisoners simply because that’s the word for people who are in prison: they’re imprisoned in prison and they’re not allowed out of prison, so they’re prisoners. To call them anything else is needlessly imprecise. But a “source close to” Alex Chalk put it differently: “People in prison are there because they have committed serious crimes and need to be locked up to protect the public. We should be speaking plainly and not pretending that these people are angels residing in a cell out of choice.”

This is also needlessly imprecise: those in prison aren’t all there because they’ve committed crimes. Some are either awaiting trial or have suffered miscarriages of justice. There’s no need to get into how angelic or otherwise the people whom the state has locked up may at heart be. I want them to be called prisoners simply because that’s what they are, and terms like supervised individual are daftly euphemistic. But Chalk seems to be appealing to those who object to these other terms not because they are silly and inaccurate, but because they show insufficient contempt – as if prisoners who are referred to as residents are somehow getting off lightly despite their forfeit of liberty.

We’ve all been residents who’ve lost our liberty in the past year and, depending on the attitude of your neighbours, many of us have felt like supervised individuals, so maybe that’s why Chalk is keen to preserve terms that only apply to those who have literally been put in prison. I preferred how Andrea Albutt, president of the Prison Governors Association, expressed it: “The word prisoner is inoffensive, it refers to everyone who’s in prison – whether they are on remand and unconvicted or convicted. It doesn’t really matter what crime they may have committed – they are a prisoner.”

This issue is an interesting tussle between two lamentable aspects of our society: lame managerial euphemism versus dog-whistle politics. On the one hand, the inclination to adopt new and ugly turns of phrase, such as roadmap and service user, because jargon has the same cheap allure as advertising. And on the other, the political technique of deflecting discontent on to the powerless and away from the powerful.

In these polarised times, I suppose I’ll have to pick a side. So, on reflection, I’ll be reaching out to stakeholders in the management ecosystem to get confirmation that we’re singing from the same hymn sheet.


David Mitchell

The GuardianTramp

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