by Giles Fraser
Monday, 11
May 2020

‘Stay alert’ is not precise — but it is meaningful

by Giles Fraser
Boris Johnson gave an update on lockdown last night

“Let me be perfectly clear”. Whenever a politician says that, I inwardly groan and tune out. Because I know what comes next — a word salad of precise sounding official-speak, usually intoned with mock seriousness and the sort of slow patronising lilt that you might use to address a recalcitrant five year old.

But what “being clear” is all about isn’t always a straightforward matter. For instance, a word can be both perfectly clear and yet also imprecise. If I describe someone as a “tall man” there is nothing unclear about what I am saying, despite the fact that I am unable to give you a precise definition of where short gives way to tall.

A five-foot tall man is short. A six-foot tall man is tall. Somewhere between these measurements, the one gives way to the other. Some statements are perfectly clear without being precise. And some statements — like those commonly made on the Today programme — are precise without being the slightest bit clear.

Take Boris Johnson’s new Covid meme, “Stay alert, Control the virus, Save Lives”. It has already been widely mocked. “Ooh Careful, Mind how you go, Be lucky,” as one wag described it. But when Nicola Sturgeon says that she does not know what “stay alert” means, she is surely being subtly disingenuous.

Of course she knows what it means. Because like many phrases we use, its meaning is not generated by its precision. The problem here is not one of meaning. It is just that that there are all sorts of circumstances that we don’t know how it applies. Can I go sunbathing? Can I go for a (socially distanced) walk with my mates?

Releasing a whole society from lockdown is an extremely complicated business. The safety rules concerning the myriad of things that people want to do with their freedom, the many millions of different ways that people make a living, cannot be accurately captured by a single phrase.

Nor indeed, by a thousand page government document for that matter. To this extent people will have to learn to take some responsibility for the way they manage their lives with respect to this threat. Meaningful yet necessarily imprecise language is the only way of doing this.

Those who (deliberately) confuse the meaningful with the precise are being smartarses — often legalistic smartarses — whose language has not caught up with the nature of this threat. Ultimately, we do not know how this novel pathogen is affecting our infinitely complex society and we should not pretend that we have the precise language for it. In such circumstances, “stay alert” seems to be a perfectly reasonable thing to advise. And an irresponsible thing to attack.

Join the discussion

To get involved in the discussion and stay up to date, become a registered user.

It's simple, quick and free.

Sign me up