Are you sensitised to this jargon?
A downpage nib from today’s Guardian:
Premature babies ‘more sensitised to pain’
Premature babies are sensitised to pain by intensive care treatments they receive after birth, a new study suggests.
First up, “sensitise” is a jargon, scientific word. It means “to make someone or something respond to certain stimuli”. So what the Guardian is telling us is that premature babies respond to pain because of intensive care.
Really? Don’t all babies respond to pain, whether or not they’ve had intensive care? Would premature babies not respond to pain if they hadn’t had intensive care? Well, maybe not: they might be dead, I suppose.
But this highlights one danger of churnalism: mindlessly rattling off the jargon from a press release without engaging the brain. You end up writing nonsense.
What the Guardian churnalist and the sub who wrote the headline meant to say is that scientific studies suggest premature babies feel more pain because of intensive care than healthy newborns. Which is what the Daily Mail managed to say succinctly and cogently in just as many words:
Premature babies are more sensitive to pain than those born after a full-term pregnancy, a study has found.
Even better, get rid of the “sensitivity” motif altogether and put it in even more basic English: “Premature babies feel pain more…”, “…are more aware of pain…” or “…respond more to pain…”
But I don’t know, maybe Guardian readers are sensitised to this sort of thoughtless throwing around of jargonese. Personally, I’d rather leave “sensitise” to the scientists and toothpaste advertisers.
UPDATE: When I wrote this, I was unaware how widespread “sensitise” had become. An example at random: Richard North on EUReformation:
“Thus, when something like the Laws affair erupts, normal rules don’t apply. People have been sensitised. They are already of the firm opinion that the political classes are a bunch of self-serving shits.”
And, noted more in sorrow than anger, the estimable Lynne Truss – she of Eats, Shoots and Leaves, a book I much admire – in her recent book about sports writing, Get Her Off The Pitch:
“By the time I got my chance…to see the sweating, shaven-headed and massively muscular Evander Holyfield…I was so sensitised to the idea of boxing’s sheer physicality that I almost fainted at the sight of him.”
What’s interesting about these two examples is that although in both instances, “sensitise” is at first glance a Latinised, highfalutin synonym for “aware”, they each carry a subtly different meaning: in North’s case the more prosaic “now know about”, in Truss’s case the more physical, even erotic, “turned on by”.
Thus, as Orwell noted, the pressing into general service of a jargon word, with a precise and useful meaning in its proper context, gradually sucks that meaning out, leaving a mere pretentious, metaphorical husk.