Parliamentary jargon

You will find that one of the skills you need to acquire in your new job is a whole new language. To help you in this process we bring you a two-part introduction:

  1. Parliamentary jargon decoder
  2. MP-speak Translator

1. Parliamentary jargon decoder

It’s your first week in parliament, and already you’ve been asked to lay your hands on the vote bundle, talk to the table office about an Early Day Motion tabled before prorogation, speak to someone in ‘the Other Place’ and tell the Sergeant at Arms’ office that your Member is hoping to catch The Speaker’s eye. So you would be forgiven for thinking that everyone here is speaking an entirely made-up language.

In recent years, some efforts have been made to make Parliamentary language more accessible to the general public; for example the Modernisation Committee has replaced the phrase ‘I spy strangers’, formerly used to request that the House sit in private, with a request ‘that the House sits in private’, which actually makes sense.

However, for many, there will always be a strange sense of smugness that comes from speaking an almost entirely incomprehensible language, reflecting the ‘old boys’ club’ culture that arguably still pervades Parliament.  Some parliamentary language is useful, and can be genuinely interesting once you learn the history behind it, although its obscurity can pose a real barrier to engagement with Parliament.  However, we say “if you can’t beat em’, join em’. ”  Although rambling on to a constituent about Short money or Statutory Instruments is probably unwise, trying to construct a sentence so jargon-filled that even your all-knowing MP can’t understand you can be a lot of fun, especially as they’re unlikely to admit that you’re talking absolute incomprehensible twaddle.

“The DCSF bill’s only going to ping-pong over the Sunset clause
– unless you use a dilatory motion, there’s no guillotine!”

There are many guides to parliamentary language on the internet, and we’ve pulled together a few of the best:

Parliament’s own A-Z Glossary is extremely useful, very factual if a little dry – they have failed to notice the irony of including a translation of ‘Modernisation Committee’, a body whose purpose is primarily to make these sorts of glossaries unnecessary…

Get hold of a copy of the latest edition of Business of the House and its Committees: a short guide.  This 118 page booklet, available from the Vote Office and the Table Office, is one of the must-have items for all Members’ offices as it throws much needed light on many of the still weird and wonderful practices at Westminster. In particular, the Procedure and Practice section includes lots of helpful descriptions of terminology and practices whose names don’t give a clue as to their real meaning. It is available on the intranet here:

The BBC’s A-Z of Parliament  is also pretty good, and includes a handy quiz and a selection of short explanatory films.

Guardian’s glossary of parliamentary terms is fairly useful, although a little short, and looks to have been written more for a lay-audience than for those actually working in Parliament.

Although it doesn’t have a glossary as such, the Parliamentary Education Service website aims to decode parliament for young people, and has some very useful resources should you have school groups visiting.

More specifically, there are also glossaries explaining terms used in the Welsh AssemblyScottish ParliamentNorthern Ireland Assembly and specifically in Local Government.

2. MP-speak Translator

Of course, there are some phrases that the ‘official’ guides will never be able to explain, and for those, take a look below at our very own Dean Trench’s helpful guide to translating MP-speak.

Note from the W4MP Editor: Parliament is a serious place, and the Palace of Westminster and constituency offices are filled with hard-working, dedicated professionals engaged in the important business of running the country.  Yet even the most committed need time for rest and recuperation, space to kick back and unwind, and opportunities to take a sideways look at their workplace, employers and even their political masters.

Our man, Dean Trench, has written many wonderful pieces for W4MP over the years, guaranteed to turn your sobs of frustration into tears of laughter.  Here is his helpful guide to translating what your boss really means when s/he says……  This is the short version.

The language of Parliament is a complicated art to master: statutory instruments, delegated legislation, carry over motions, deferred voting…and since Bellamy’s cafeteria has had its makeover it takes everyone a good five minutes to work out that saucisson with creamed pomme de terre and onion jus is just their sausage and mash made to sound vaguely edible.

MPs are no easier to understand. They half explain instructions they have only thought a quarter of the way through, write with all the elegance and clarity of your average Ewok, and react in the manner of Darth Vader with constipation if somehow you’ve failed to understand their coded and garbled commands.

Help is at hand, however. Below are some common phrases used by Members of Parliament to their staff with their translations, because in the Palace of Westminster things are never quite as they seem.

‘Dean Trench’

They Say They Mean
I’ve just cleared my inbox! Your inbox is now full.
Get the Prime Minister on the phone. Now! I have a healthy sense of my importance in the political process.
Why wasn’t I told about this immediately? I was told. I forgot. It’s still your fault.
I’ve had a BRILLIANT idea! Run! Run like the wind!
Here, I’ve bought you a coffee. I’ve done something stupid that you’re going to have to clear up.
Here, I’ve bought you lunch. Man, I’ve done something REALLY stupid. I hope you’ve got some waterproof trousers because you’re going to be in it up to the groin.
I’m quite flexible about the hours you work. I’m extremely flexible if you want to stay on two or three hours at the end of the day. However, if you arrive in as much as thirty seconds later than 9am, I’ll have your guts for garters.
Send out a press release saying I’m available for comment on today’s events. I am a media whore.
The computer’s lost all my emails! I can’t tell the difference between an empty Excel spreadsheet and Microsoft Outlook
Hello, I’m your local MP. But you can call me God.
Well, I’m not surprised she got promoted; she’s very friendly with David/Nick/Ed. I’m as jealous as hell.
Are you volunteering to help in my re-election? I’m volunteering you to help in my re-election. Bang goes the rest of your holiday entitlement!
Nobody told me that the letter had gone out…I was told that you hadn’t sent it…constituency office gave me totally the wrong information and said that you’d dropped the ball – I never said that about you. I think you’re great. Fancy a doughnut? I’m sorry.
I’m sorry but you’re going to have to work late tonight. I’m not sorry.
We’ve got a problem. I’ve caused a problem.
I’ve drafted a press release. I’ve just spent a highly pleasurable forty-five minutes talking about how awesome I am in the third person.
Someone must have hacked my account! I got drunk and posted some disobliging words about a Parliamentary colleague on Twitter.
There must have been a problem with my office The problem being that I failed to inform them of the meeting so they did not know to draft an agenda and then circulate to this list of people that I have in my head to invite, nor book the room that I am currently sitting in.”
I moved it in the diary. And omitted to notify any of the attendees that I had done so. Nonetheless, I am sat – on my own because no one has turned up – quietly fuming because my staff haven’t managed to read my mind using the Force.

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A Working for an MP Guide
Parliamentary Jargon
First Published 7 May 2010 w4mp
Last Updated 30 January 2012 w4mp
Last Reviewed 1 January 2014 w4mp
Unamended version copied from old Guide