Job titles, hyphens and inflationary language

Sometime last year our traffic wardens became “civil enforcement officers”. Actually, there had been an intermediary stage I’d missed when they were known as “parking attendants”. Such inflationary language is, as ever, clearly laughable. Not only have we gone from a job with four syllables to five to a whopping eight, but in the more recent upgrade the abbreviated form of the title promotes the worker from a mere PA to a grand-sounding CEO.

Never mind that most people have little clue about what a civil enforcement officer does. Doesn’t every normal person still call them traffic wardens?

Still, I’m sure that the self-importance felt by the possessors of pompous and weighty-sounding titles goes some way towards compensating for the insidious wage deflation that many commentators believe has been a feature of the UK economy in recent decades.

But sadly, in this instance, the impressive ring of “civil enforcement officer” is, I think, rather undermined by the lack of a hyphen. An encounter with a “civil-enforcement officer” sounds a bit scary and to be avoided. An encounter with a “civil enforcement officer”, on the other hand, sounds like it might feel like being gently nagged by Hugh Grant:

“Hello, terribly sorry to bother you. Um, this is a little awkward and I do hate to be such an awful nuisance, but would you mind terribly moving your car? It’s just that it’s such a bother for other drivers, you see. Thank you so much, that’s really very kind of you.”

So two pieces of advice here:

1. If adding a hyphen aids understanding, please use one. As Lynn Truss points out in Eats, Shoots and Leaves, “extra-marital sex”, “pickled-herring merchant” and “the two hundred-odd members of the Conservative Party” all take on quite different meanings if the hyphen is removed.

2. No one is convinced by inflationary job titles. If your sole source of professional self-esteem comes from calling yourself a “vision clearance executive” instead of a window cleaner or a “nourishment production assistant” instead of a dinner lady, then perhaps it’s time for a career change.