Official list of English words misused in EU documents

A brief list of misused English terminology in EU publications [PDF] is a fascinating look at the emerging dialect of English that is emerging out of the EU bureaucracy, in which odd bureaucratic language has to be translated from and to many languages. It's a good window into concepts that are common in one nation's bureaucratic tradition, but not others':

Dispose (of)
Explanation: the most common meaning of ‘dispose of’ is ‘to get rid of’ or ‘to throw away’; it never means ‘to have’, ‘to possess’ or ‘to have in one’s possession’. Thus, the sentence ‘The managing authority disposes of the data regarding participants.’ does not mean that it has them available; on the contrary, it means that it throws them away or deletes them. Similarly, the sentence below does not mean: ‘the Commission might not have independent sources of information’, it means that the Commission is not permitted to discard the sources that it has.

Example: ‘The Commission may not be able to assess the reliability of the data provided by Member States and may not dispose of independent information sources (see paragraph 39)46.’

As Bruce Sterling says, "I would not expect 'Brussels English' to get any closer to grammatically correct British English; on the contrary I would expect it in future to drift into areas of machine translation jargon, since that’s a lot cheaper than hiring human translators who are as skilled as the author of this document."

Web Semantics: Brussels English


  1. I would expect it in future to drift into areas of machine translation
    jargon, since that’s a lot cheaper than hiring human translators

    Have you seen Closed Captioning lately?  Not live shows, where mistakes are understandable, but filmed/taped shows.  Here are programs for international broadcast, and the quality level of captioning is annoyingly mediocre and often downright pathetic, due to an indifferent corporate management, and hey, the public outcry ain’t deafening their ears anyhow, so status quo.

    But when laws are written with this penny-pinching anti-culture of mediocrity, that’s another ballgame altogether!

    1. Thankfully, they’re not. There will never be machine translations of EU legislative documents,
      since there are no translations of EU legislative documents, they are
      drafted simultaneously in 23 language versions that all have equal legal standing.

      1. Gotcha, I misspoke, the EU is a thoughtfully constructed organization that will not go cheap on crucial issues, especially when over a dozen languages are involved.  Yet by nature, the threshold for entropy is very, very low.

        As Cory points out, there are recurring, avoidable translation mistakes that muddle the waters on technical matters of vital importance.  Wars have been fought on mis-translated words.

        In a perfect world, all EU legislators have read and understood Lawrence Lessig.  But in the majority NO, and also they get subtly wrong translations of documents on already abstract issues, subtly wrong concepts flowing throughout the organization.

        Hell, even in one language in one country the obvious seems difficult enough.

        1. Quoting myself:

          especially when over a dozen languages are involved

          23 languages, but hell, when two or more languages are involved, the threshold for entropy is very low.

        2. I remember reading that the different senses of ‘control’ prompted British concern over the fate of the French fleet, and, with other translation problems, contributed to the Mers el Kebir fiasco.

  2. I think someone – some actor needs to do a project of deepening this decreasing evolution of adequacy of EC fiches. If ‘comitology’ and ‘planification’ can make it past the editors, how about ‘expectoration’?

  3. The example given is interesting, as the roots of the English word ‘dispose’ is from the French ‘disposer’ – 1) to arrange in a certain way, in a certain order;  2) to be apt to do something (see ‘predisposed’); 3) have in your posession.   In French, the word is never used to mean ‘throw away’.

    So rather than publish a list of banned words and phrases (as these can/do cause confusion), the EU publishes a list of words and their ‘approved meanings, which are exactly what it decides they mean…  Shades of Humpty Dumpty.

    And rather than making EU texts clearer, they make them more obtuse.  Democracy in action, eh.

    1. Sure sounds like a lawyer’s solution.  As a paralegal I’ve worked on agreements that were a couple pages long with 50 pages of defiining terms.

    2. It should be made clear that this is not a criticism of the standard of English in official documents nowadays so much as part of the official style guide, which has a similar function to the ones produced by the New York Times and other newspapers – avoiding common mistakes and providing clear and consistent writing in English, despite the huge quantity of translation being done in many fields and from many source languages by translators with varying levels of skill and experience.

  4. I think what we are seeing here is the fact that translation is always a tricky business and more so in the law. No, wait, what we have here is an opportunity to ridicule people tasked with an impossible job. What fun!

    1.  I think it might also be a “feature” of bureaucracy. Around here there’s been a sudden intense interest in the structural stability of buildings in serious earthquakes. All commercial buildings have had to be assessed, and more than a few have been found to be fine in day-to-day use, but probably or definitely unsafe in the event of an earthquake. So far so good. The bureaucracy is working and doing its job.

      However, the term they’ve used to designate this type of building is “Earthquake Prone”, which makes no sense at all. The only way it can be made to make sense is by arbitrarily changing the meaning of ‘prone.’

      Fo some reason, I find that irrationally annoying.

  5. It has that meaning in a moderately obscure context.  In the example given, it clears says that the managing authority throws its data away.

  6. “the emerging dialect of English that is emerging out of the EU bureaucracy”

    Clearly, this infectious malady is infectious.

  7. I sometimes do translation for the EC, so this is a document that I have already read and have on my computer together with other guides to correct grammar, terminology and other areas. A number of these will be false friends; at least in Spanish or French, the same root word as ‘dispose of’ could be used in the sense of ‘have’. There’s also ‘to have at one’s disposal’ or the more colloquial ‘dispose of sth. as you wish’. The problem is that once a translation is online, other translators use it as a guide when they translate a related piece of legislation, or if they search for a similar string of words on a site like linguee.

    Machine translations are also a factor; you won’t have a machine translation submitted to an editor as a translation (or at least not twice!), but an incorrect translation from an MT might slip through. At the end of the day, there are many different translators working on different projects for Europe (not all of the work is done in-house and a lot of my work is translating messages between two member states rather than documents to be seen throughout Europe) so it makes sense to make these guides to limit the effects of terms creeping between languages.

    On a more positive note, the EU does have higher standards than many companies, so I enjoy translating documents that are usually not too obscure. Translating German texts from people who don’t understand their own jargon and who use 50 word sentences is miserable.

  8. Bureauspeak is actually used to seed a lot of machine-translation jargon, since it’s an area where the same document will be translated into the entire range of languages, by humans, with carefully preserved semantics.  

    Unfortunately that also means the translator will have a bureaucratic bias.  For instance, there was a period where the Google Korean-English translator would translate “read” in Korean to “cannot read” in English.  As far as I could guess, the reason was that most UN etc. documents are more concerned with illiteracy than literacy, so the verb “to read” most often occurs in the negative sense, and a statistical translator only sees “not” as a minor omission.

  9. Actually, an ignorance of the meaning of “dispose” is on display by the author.  It has meanings other than “to throw away”, particularly when describing legal relationships between people/things.

    1. No, the author is correct. You misread the definition. “Dispose” has several meanings; “dispose of” only ever means “throw away, get rid of, be done with.”

  10. A highly suspect list at best. The very first word, Actor, is used as the EU uses it in most political science writing as well. Using “actor” to mean someone who does something (not just play acting) is a common usage in academia. From there the list just gets nitpicky (word?) – Agent-  it doesn’t mean someone who does something… like a travel agent perhaps? 

    Maybe it is because I am American and we don;t speak English, but some of these words seemed ok in their usage. However, clearly some don’t. The use of Adequate to mean “enough” drives me nuts. It does mean (used to mean) “barely enough.”

    1. Since when?  Google supports my (native American English) understanding of adequate:

      AdjectiveSatisfactory or acceptable in quality or quantity.Synonymssufficient – enough – suitable – appropriate – fit

  11. I worked for a Commission contract in Brussels, and this drove me absolutely nuts. Germans in particular are absolutely convinced that they speak it proficiently and they don’t need any native speakers to help them, thank you very much (I’m allowed to say this because I’m half-German, k.)

  12. I’m a native speaker of English and have lived around Brussels for the past 5 years or so. In that time, I’ve had a lot of interaction with both the locals and various people from the Commission, and I’m convinced there is a legitimate “continental English” dialect spoken exclusively as a second language (though I have never looked into whether linguists agree with that assessment). I consistently hear the same words and expressions used in the same way across a broad cross-section of continental Europeans, and while I perfectly understand what is being said, these are not word choices I would ever make myself. It seems to me that this is the version of English the Commission is settling on (though I would think that UK English would make the most sense, since the country is a member state…).

  13. When I worked in Brussels, a guy who worked on EU-funded projects explained that there was always a battle to write the first draft of any contract. The reason for this is that although the contract would end up being translated into multiple languages (English, French and German at a minimum), the first version was authoritative in case of any dispute. This meant that someone who knew how various words were likely to be (mis)translated in Euro-speak could choose the wording in such a way as to favor whichever organization drafted the original.

    A particular favorite was ‘eventually’ which is not at all the same as the French ‘éventuellement’. The French word has a meaning closer to ‘maybe’ or, in some contexts, ‘if necessary’. Cue angry French speakers saying “… but you said you’d do it if it was necessary”, and English speakers saying smugly “No, no, if you look at the original, you’ll see that we said we’d get around to that … some day.” Of course, if the French wrote the original, they could use the same confusion to their advantage.

    The English ‘delay’ and the French ‘délai’ are another useful source of confusion. I’ve seen a French speaker tell someone “I don’t have any delays,”, to which his English-speaking interlocutor answered “Well, if you don’t have any delays, why can’t you deliver the things we need today?” What the French guy actually meant was “J’ai pas des délais”, meaning approximately “I don’t have an ETA for this”.

  14. if the EU is going to use lingua anglicus in official documents, then the usage should be the most commonly accepted and broadest definition, not some oblique etymological definition. they need to learn to write in “Wall Street English”

  15. I’m a eurocrat (have been since 1995).  EU English, like the language used in most large organisations, takes on a life of its own.  In the case of EU English, it has probably diverged more significantly and more rapidly from ‘standard’ English because only a minority of EU staff are native English speakers.  An awful lot of franglais (like ‘dispose of’) has crept into our ‘standard’ English over the years (other examples: ‘in the framework of…’, ‘to realise a project…’, ‘to go on mission…’).  Yes, it makes native speakers cringe, especially if they’ve never really been exposed to it before; no, it’s not a sign of anything particularly heinous or vile, it’s just the natural evolution of language in a closed system.  I recently spent a couple of years on loan to the UK Foreign Office which has exactly the same kind of institutional vocabulary – words which would not be recognised by the general public in the form that they’re being used.

    1. Nerd culture also develops its own linguistic tools to more precisely describe things. But one precondition has to apply for that development; a reasonably closed social and professional circle. I think that’s unhealthy for politics, and it does go a bit towards confirming my skepticism to the EU.

      1. But this isn’t unique to the EU. It’s only more marked because of its multicultural, multilingual nature. Exactly the same thing happens in ANY organisation, including any EU Member State’s national government ministries.  And I don’t agree with your assertion that an organisation must have a “reasonably close social and professional circle” for these linguistic developments to occur.  I simply don’t agree that the European institutions are closed, either socially or professionally.  In fact, in my experience, it’s hard to imagine any that are more open.  That’s not always a good thing!

        1. (I realise I’ve contradicted myself – in my first comment I called the EU a “closed system” whereas I’ve just asserted that the EU Institutions are not closed at all.  I suppose that I’m speaking relatively. All organisations are more or less self-contained; I think the EU is in some ways very self-contained, existing within the Brussels bubble; and in other ways it’s relatively open, compared to other similar organisations, because of the other people in that bubble – press, parliamentarians, national officials, diplomats, lobbyists, etc.)

  16. That makes me think of a botched “No Swimming” sign at a lake near my house.
    It is a bilingual sign that reads a correct french “baignade interdite” and it’s incongruous auto-translate english “speechless bathing”. I’m pretty sure this sign is possesed by an evil vengeful spirit that drowns children.

  17. Just so we’re clear, everyone agrees that the “dispose (of)” definition Cory quotes is 100% correct English, right? “Dispose” has several different meanings, but “dispose of” always means “get rid of” in one sense or another. The original post sounds like Cory’s saying their definition doesn’t match standard English, so I was somewhat confused…

  18. Amazing to see the consequences of the teaching methods in the French (and Belgian?) schools.  This is a catalogue of the typical errors that I did, and that my mates did at school in English. 

    Among the 5 or 6 teachers I had:

    – One had no clue about what “awesome” could mean (not in our dictionaries in the late 80’s),
    -One counted me -1 because she was not aware that “the rich” means “the rich people”: she thought that I forgot the plural….. And did not believe my explanations.
    -One had such an horrible pronunciation that absolutely nobody in London understood him. It made school travels quite hilarious for the pupils.

    More essential is the fact that the traditional French approach is to saturate the pupils with grammar rules for years (rules that are forgotten days after being learned), while actual practice is secondary. 

    I switched from “bad in English” to almost fluent in a matter of a few months, because I bought a computer which had all its coding courses  and software manuals in English. A good bunch of IT documents and a dictionary brought me much more than 5 years of daily English courses at school. Still, landing in Ireland was hard, and it took me 6 months to be able to speak decently and understand what people said, because I only had the written English.

    Hopefully, because this generation see a lot of English daily thanks to the internet, we may have a majority of non-native politics and administrative personnel who can actually speak English, in a few years. (By actually I mean “really”, not “while I’m writing” :).

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