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Why we love to hate ‘liaise’

Everyone has a list of words that set their teeth on edge. Some appear on more lists than others. Liaiseis a prime example – a word that attracts a passionate linguistic hatred that does not match its meaning or length. Why is this?

Liaise looks pleasant enough, and is downright euphonious once you wrap your tongue around the extra i tucked in there. It may not be as mellifluous a word as, say, cuspidor (which was reputed to have been James Joyce’s choice for the most pleasing sounding word in the English language), but it has a nice ring to it.

However it appears to have at least two things working against it – it is a jargonistic back-formation. Perhaps if it fell into only one of these categories it might be just another word that would land on an occasional pet peeve list, but given that it lands in both, liaise will have a hard time rehabilitating itself. This does not mean, however, that it is a badly-formed word.

Although it is frequently assailed on the grounds that it is essentially meaningless business jargon, liaise did not spring fully formed, like some Athena-like lemma, from the resume of a corporate stooge. It began its life in the 1920s in the military, and so comes from a similar time and environment as words such as chowhound and ginormous.  And there is nothing inherently wrong with jargon. It can be overused, but surely this is a danger with all kind of words.

Nor is there anything inherently wrong with words that are formed by back-formation; there are hundreds of them in the English language that we all use unquestioningly. Enthuse (from enthusiasm), glitz (from glitzy), sleaze (from sleazy), and reminisce (from reminiscence) are all examples of common words that came about through back-formation.

It does seem that verbs created in this way from nouns, whether by back-formation or not, and especially if they have been created within the past 100 years or so, have a special ability to raise hackles. Liaise is in similar company as party and action in this regard. Yet the English language has been creating verbs this way for many hundreds of years now, and these verbs have yet to destroy it, so we’re probably safe in continuing to use them.

This should not be interpreted as a plea to confer any status on the word liaise – I am not making an argument for its beauty or usefulness. But it has come about in the same way as many other English words that no one feels the need to cast aspersions at – maybe it’s time to find some other jargonistic bit of back-formation to pick on. I vote for deconstruct.

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