#TakeBackTechnician

This blog post may be the most niche criticism of Strictly Come Dancing ever to have been launched in to the world. But, I do love a good sequin… oh and a reference to technicians!

Most people might remember last Saturday night’s Strictly Come Dancing (23rd Nov 2019) for the shock of Amy and Karim being in the dance-off, despite finishing joint-top of the leaderboard. Their Contemporary Couple’s Choice dance won high praise from all the judges except one; Craig Revel Horwood. His criticism was controversial in many ways but for me it stuck in the memory for one reason: his use of the word ‘technician’.

Craig said he thought Karim was “a technician and not an actor” and that the dance was “lacking emotional content.” It was a criticism that was roundly disagreed with, particularly by Bruno, and Craig still gave the couple a 9, so it can’t be that bad to be a technician.

What interests me is that Craig’s use of the word ‘technician’ as a metaphor for someone who is highly skilled but who lacks creativity. As I will show below, it is a common usage, but I wonder whether it is a usage that harms people’s opinions of professional technicians, and whether this usage leads people to see technicians as lacking something, irrespective of their other skills. Do we need to hit back at this use of the term ‘technician? Do we need to #TakeBackTechnician ?

Here is the full text of Craig Revel Horwood’s criticism of Karim and Amy’s dance [1].

It was dynamic, I thought it was engaging. I thought it had great leaps, great turns. But, I have to say, I think at the moment you’re a technician and not an actor. And that bothers me. Because there could have been a lot more story in that. I think it’s lacking emotional content. I really do. This is to do, actually, with both of your dancing throughout this series. I am being serious about this. I want you to fly. I am desperate to get a 10 out for you, darling. I really am. I am battling with the fact that your technique is overpowering what you’re trying to say in the dance.

The origin of this usage of the word technician is as old as the term itself. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) presents two definitions [2]:

  1. A person knowledgeable or skilled in the technicalities of a particular field; esp. an expert in the formal or practical aspect of an art, sometimes with implications of a corresponding lack of creativity.

  2. A person qualified in the practical aspects of one of the sciences or mechanical arts; (in later use) esp. a person whose job is to carry out practical work in a laboratory or to give assistance with technical equipment.

The second of these definitions is a more familiar description of a technician for those who read this blog – someone who works in a laboratory doing practical work. The first definition is the one that best represents Craig’s use of the term. It suggests, not a job role, but a person with particular skill in an area such as politics, humanities, or dance. Craig made full use of the word by exploiting its implied lack of creativity.

It is a much more common usage than you might expect. For example, in Blown Away, a 2019 Canadian reality-television glassblowing competition, the two finalists, Deborah and Janusz, are compared by one of the judges with the words “One is a perfect technician and the other really has a good concept.” [3] In the end, it is Deborah with the perfect concept, in other words the most creative, who wins out over the perfect technician, Janusz.

Further examples can be found all over the place, from people talking about politics [4]:

The fate of the DEA [Department of Economic Affairs] was symbolic of Wilson the supreme Whitehall technician — failure at every level, from the Cabinet command post to the interdepartmental bush, where drive, energy and strategy can disappear without trace. His was a hugely disappointing premiership in terms of modernizing the instruments of government… He is an arch-practitioner of the politics of scapegoating. It was all the Treasury’s fault.

To politicians talking about judges [5]:

For all their grandeur and for all their necessary importance, our courts and judges are but narrow technicians: They are not legislators: It is not their job to talk, for instance, about the moral or political climate: Their job is to look carefully and in detail at provisions and determine their effect on a particular dispute between individuals: Only in the French system are wider political considerations allowed to be brought into play.

In sport [6]:

[Nick Faldo]’s the hardest worker on all aspects of the game. He’s a technician and a great worker on the physical and mental sides. And he’s always out working on the range and the practice green. It doesn’t work for me. For me [Steve Bowman] it’s just feel and the longer I stay out on the range, the more damage I do!

And in talking about dancers [7]:

…there is an equal chasm between what Petipa originally intended and the way these two dancers vulgarised and exaggerated every step.

Of course they are wonderful technicians, but this was turning dance into an athletics display, with art almost entirely out of sight. So during the interval I felt distinctly apologetic.

There are many more examples available. This is just a selection of ones I have found come across. Not all of the above examples have the explicit implication of a lack of creativity, but they all express a sense of a narrow or particular set of skills to the exclusion of some elusive, innate je ne sais quoi.

Do these uses of the word ‘technician’ impact negatively on the general public concept of the professional technician? This is a particularly pertinent question at the moment as there are various campaigns trying to improve the status of technicians and the esteem in which they are held. In this climate of listening to and talking about technicians, I’d be interested to know whether the fab-u-lous technicians working on the Strictly set (of which there are many) noticed Craig’s use of their professional nomenclature?

Maybe Craig’s lighting in the next episode will mysteriously drop out? Or perhaps the stitching of this clothes fail half way through the next episode? Or potentially his mic may suddenly develop a fault? I’m not suggesting that through a sense of solidarity Strictly technicians sabotage Craig, but… #takebacktechnician!

What do you think? Please let me know in the comments below or get in touch.

Acknowledgments and sources

Thank you to Rebecca Woods for noticing this usage – I had missed that night’s episode. Also thank you for her fantastic (as always) input into the above. Thank you also to Bob Jamieson for the quote from Blown Away. Please let us know if you have any questions or comments on any of the above. I’d love to hear from you.

Notes about quotes

Bold highlights in the above quotes are my own. Some of these quotes are taken from the British National Corpus – these are indicated with the abbreviation BNC and the appropriate reference.

  1. This quote comes from Series 17, Week 10 of Strictly Come Dancing. This was aired on the BBC on 23rd Nov 2019. If you want to see it then go to 23min 30sec from the start.
  2. “Home : Oxford English Dictionary”. http://www.oed.com. Retrieved 2019-08-06
  3. This quote is from the final of Blown away,  Series 1, Episode 10 “Best in Blow”. It aired 12th July 2019 on Netflix.
  4. This is an extract from Peter Hennessy’s 1986 book Cabinet (BNC, B0H, units 723-737)
  5. An extract from Hansard, the record of the speeches in the UK parliment. This extract was from 24th March 1993 in the House of Commons and the speaker was
    Mr Nicholas Budgen.
  6. This extract is from Golf Monthly. (BNC, C9E, units 825-830)
  7. This quote is from the Daily Telegraph Arts section on 12th April 1992 (BNC, AK4, units 1370-1372).

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