On third countries, agents, and transpositions: A beginner’s guide to EU English

By Nikos Chrysoloras

Brussels - Since the 2004 enlargement of the European Union, English has become the lingua franca in its institutions and agencies. True, French is still useful for those of us living in the predominantly Francophone city of Brussels, but mostly to facilitate communication at the supermarket, not at work. However, the vast majority of those using English inside the Brussels “bubble” are not native speakers themselves (including the author of this article). The result is that “over the years, the European institutions have developed a vocabulary that differs from that of any recognised form of English. It includes words that do not exist or are relatively unknown to native English speakers outside the EU institutions”, according to a document published by the Translation Directorate of the European Court of Auditors. So when outsiders claim that the Brussels jargon is incomprehensible to them, they do have a point. It’s not just the concepts that are unknown. Even the words don’t make sense.

The residents of the bubble may of course wonder why this is so important. After all, officials in Brussels know that when they refer to “contract agents”, they mean temporary staff, and not hired killers. But “the European institutions also need to communicate with the outside world and documents need to be translated – both tasks that are not facilitated by the use of terminology that is unknown to native speakers and either does not appear in dictionaries or is shown in them with a different meaning” reads the document, urging EU translators to use standard British English. Here’s a few hilarious examples of misuse of English in EU institutions, as cited by the author of the document, Jeremy Gardner:

Agenda: In EU English, an agenda is a book in which you write down your appointments. For the rest of the world, an agenda is “a list or programme of things to be done or considered”.

Agent: In EU English, an “agent” is usually someone who is on a temporary contract with one of the Institutions of Agencies of the Union. In British and Irish English, an “agent” is normally either someone who works for a government intelligence agency (CIA, MOSSAD, MI5, G2) or a person who runs or represents a service agency (travel agent, estate agent). He/she can also be someone who represents the interests of an artist (actor, musician etc.) or, increasingly, someone (not necessarily a direct employee) who represents a company in its dealings with the public (ticket agent, baggage agent, call center agent). Its use to mean “someone who is employed by the EU in any capacity” is incorrect and, incidentally, is not even sanctioned by the Staff Regulations or the Conditions of Employment of Other Servants.

Anglo-Saxon: In English, the term “Anglo-Saxon” is generally used to describe ‘a member of any of the West Germanic tribes (Angles, Saxons, and Jutes) that settled in Britain from the 5th century AD’. Also, particularly in America, it is used to denominate white people, usually of the Protestant faith (WASPS), thus excluding large swathes of that country’s population. It follows that there is no such thing as an Anglo-Saxon country, or an Anglo-Saxon agency or Anglo-Saxon capitalism. Furthermore, the Anglo-Saxon language ceased to exist in the 12th century. This term is particularly inapplicable when used to describe the Irish, Scots and Welsh, who partly base their national identities on not being Anglo-Saxons, and verges on the ridiculous when used to include people of Caribbean origin.

Badge: The noun ‘badge’ is widely used in the EU institutions to indicate either a service pass or a tag used by employees (‘agents’) to clock in and out. Neither is usually called a badge in English, as the word generally refers to something that is worn (usually pinned, stuck or sewn to the bearer’s outer clothing). By extension, the English term ‘to clock in/out’, has been replaced here by the neologism ‘to badge’. On a brighter note, the little signs saying ‘badger’ at the Court entrances afford some harmless amusement for English-speaking staff.

Cabinet: ‘Cabinet’ (usually pronounced ‘cabinay’ by English speakers and ‘cabinet’ by others) is the term used at the Commission (and informally at the Court of Auditors) to refer to the private office of a Commissioner (or Member). Other than denoting a piece of furniture, the term is most commonly used in Britain to refer to ‘the senior ministers of the British Government’. The ‘British cabinet’ is therefore ‘the principal executive group of British government’ and not the private office of the British member of the Commission or Court or the staff thereof.

College: In the English-speaking world, ‘college’ normally refers to one type of educational establishment or another (university college, Eton College, etc.). It can also be a body of electors (‘electoral college’). In the EU, it is used to mean the actual Court or Commission, as opposed to the institution and its staff. The only context where it is traditionally used in a similar meaning is the ecclesiastical Latinism: ‘the college of cardinals’ (from Collegium Cardinalium). The term ‘college of Commissioners’ has become enshrined in EU usage. Especially when it is used in isolation (‘the college’ tout court), readers outside the institutions are unlikely to know what it refers to.

Conditionality: ‘Conditionality’ is a clumsy word that should be used parsimoniously. Moreover, it is not an erudite synonym of ‘condition’ but a derivative of ‘conditional’ and means simply ‘the state of being conditional’. Finally, it is an uncountable noun that cannot be used in the plural, despite the 156 plural hits in EUR-Lex. It should perhaps be noted that this word is also used, equally incomprehensibly, by the IMF.

Dossier: A ‘dossier’ is a file, often a copious one containing detailed records on a particular person or subject. However, it is not a particularly common word and not one that readers will necessarily fully understand or even know how to pronounce. Also it is mostly used in certain specific contexts. In EU texts, in addition to being overused in this meaning at the expense of ‘file’, it is also employed metaphorically, where there is no actual file, to mean ‘subject’, ‘issue’ or ‘question’.

Homogenise: Homogenise is a rather unusual word in English (only two hits in the British National Corpus) and is most commonly used with reference to milk. ‘Homogeneous’ and ‘homogeneously’ are much more common, but they are more often found in the sciences and social sciences, and are over-used in EU texts.

Mission: Mission has a number of meanings, none of which corresponds to the way it is most commonly used in EU texts. Generally speaking, missions in English are performed by secret agents, astronauts or diplomats. Otherwise they can be the places where priests, nuns, diplomats etc. work abroad (often in developing countries). It never means a business or official trip and we would not say ‘on mission’ in any case. Unfortunately, however, it is a very useful word: we ‘do our mission planning’, ‘go on mission’, fill in a ‘mission order’, spend our ‘mission allowance’, declare our ‘mission expenses’ and do all of this via the ‘mission(s) office’. While it would be difficult to do without the word internally, we should bear in mind that it is likely to be misconstrued by outsiders.

Third Country: The USA is one country, Canada is another, and Ireland is a third. The USA could sign an agreement with Canada to exclude a third country (e.g. Ireland) from their territorial waters (for fishing, for example). In EU texts, the term is widely used to mean ‘countries outside the European Union’, and sometimes ‘countries outside whatever grouping of countries we are talking about’. This is incorrect and largely incomprehensible to outsiders. It is also objectively unclear. This is evident if we look at the (invented) example: ‘he has a Schengen visa but he is not allowed to work in third countries’. Do we mean here: ‘non-Schengen countries’ or ‘non-EU countries’? The unaccustomed reader might even mistake it for ‘third world countries.’

Transpose: In English ‘to transpose’ means ‘to put in a different order’ and it is normally used in mathematics and music. It is not a legal term and does not (even in places that have civil law systems, like Scotland, Louisiana and Quebec) have the meaning attributed to it in EU jargon (= to enact the provisions of a Directive in national legislation). It is a useful word internally, but will not be understood in the outside world, even by lawyers, except possibly those who speak good French or are used to EU terminology.

For a more detailed list of misused English terms in EU publications see the full document: