Fighting Words

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By Jonathan Yardley
who may be reached at
Tuesday, May 23, 2006


How Words Become Weapons, How Weapons Become a Message, and How That Message Becomes Reality

By Steven Poole

Grove. 282 pp. $23

Steven Poole traverses well-trod terrain in "Unspeak." The abuse and misuse of decent, ordinary language for ulterior (and sometimes ignoble) purposes was a subject of great concern to George Orwell, of course, and more recently to a British writer named Philip Howard, whose "Weasel Words" (1979) is a biting, eloquent examination of more recent examples of the genre. But we live in a time when particularly egregious violence is done to the language by leaders in government and business, often with the complicity of the media, so it is useful to have this cool yet impassioned inquiry into what is going on right now.

That all three writers cited above are British may be mere coincidence but probably isn't. Whatever their other faults, the British care about the English language in ways that all but a few Americans simply do not. Though it can be argued, as by implication Poole does, that Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair have done considerable damage to the Queen's English with little complaint from their fellow citizens, this damage is comparatively light by comparison with that inflicted upon this country by both Presidents Bush, Bill Clinton, assorted military leaders too numerous to mention, and various partisans of the hot-button social and political issues that trouble the nation.

"Unspeak," as Poole chooses to call it, is now so commonly spoken and written that we take it for granted. Among the examples that he discusses herein are "intelligent design," "ethnic cleansing," "tragedy," "abuse," "Friends of the Earth," "weapons of mass destruction" and all those "cheerleading operation names" dreamed up by political and military leaders who want us "to support a war without having to think about what war is really like": Operation Just Cause, Operation Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom -- euphemisms that disguise the real motives behind dubious overseas military adventures under a cloud of patriotism and machismo.

People who work for corporations used to be called "employees" or, until the advent of feminism, "manpower." Now they are often called "human resources," which has, as Poole notes, a nice warm and fuzzy sound that manages to disguise the unpleasant truth that resources exist to be used -- and used up. "Friends of the Earth" also has a nice warm and fuzzy sound, in this case one that "efficiently consigns anyone who disagrees with their specific policies to the category of 'Enemy of the Earth,' " who "must be a very nasty sort of person indeed, a sci-fi villain like Ming the Merciless."

Though Poole pays little attention to the roots of the phenomenon in the language of advertising, it has in effect the same purpose: to sell you something, in this case a policy or a point of view, that if you could see in plain light you might well not want to buy. "Pro-life," certainly one of the most misleading and insidious examples of the genre, tells us that people on the other side are "pro-death." "Intelligent design" suggests that those who are faithful to the Darwinian theory of evolution are something other than "intelligent." Mainly, though, Unspeak is an instrument of warfare, as Poole makes plain by example and by analysis:

"It is not a coincidence that this book has largely concentrated on how Unspeak is used simultaneously to advance and disguise the claims of war and corporate interests. The masterpieces of the art are indeed 'ethnic cleansing,' 'war on terror,' 'repetitive administration.' Rhetorically, Unspeak is a kind of invasive procedure: it wants to bypass critical thinking and implant a foreign body of opinion directly in the soft tissue of the brain. Perhaps for this reason, it seems to have a particular affinity with projects of violence."

Unspeak "seeks to annihilate distinctions -- between 'anti-social' and criminal; 'resources' and human beings; 'cleansing' and killing; 'combatant' and civilian; 'abuse' and torture." That perhaps its most persistent and enthusiastic practitioner has been the present occupant of the Oval Office is cause for puzzlement and conjecture. On the one hand, George W. Bush is one of the least articulate and linguistically resourceful men ever to hold the presidency. One would not expect him to be so accomplished at so, well, Orwellian an undertaking. On the other hand, his entire political career has been managed by men and women brilliantly skilled in the fine arts of euphemism, spin and dissembling; Bush, obviously, has been an attentive student.

It is Bush who has made "tax relief" and "Social Security reform" the mantras of his domestic agenda. As Poole correctly points out, "tax relief" implies that taxation is merely an onerous burden rather than the responsible and (at least ideally) fair way to underwrite the obligations of citizenship. As for "reform," whether in the mouths of those on the right or the left, it usually disguises agendas far more complicated (and often devious as well) than their rhetoric would have us believe.

It is as a spinmeister of warfare, though, that Bush has earned his most lustrous medals. In his words as well as those of his principal lieutenants, Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the language of war that had been developing in recent decades reached its logical culmination: "Names became weapons. Weapons were given persuasive names. Distinctions were deliberately blurred. Realities were denied. Punishments, as Confucius predicted, did not fit the crimes. Language created a permanent culture of war." As Poole writes about Bush's (and his henchmen's) use of "terrorist": "The word is a weapon rather than a badge. Its function is to essentialise and delegitimise the target. If his victims are 'innocent,' the terrorist is 'evil' -- so George W. Bush characterizes Al Qaeda as 'these vicious and evil men,' 'these evil ones,' 'evil people,' and even 'evil folks,' a phrase that packs a weird combination of homeliness and Biblical disapprobation. Now, there is little question that if the word 'evil' means anything it can justly be applied to acts of deliberate murder. Yet there is a difference between calling an act evil and a person evil, just as there is a difference between 'terrorism' and 'terrorist.' To call a person evil is to shut down argument, to deny forever the possibility of negotiation, to go on the theological offensive."

What is especially troubling is that some members of the media have collaborated with the spread of this misleading and drastically oversimplified language. In some cases (Fox News leaps to mind), this is deliberate. In others, it seems to be the result of laziness, inattention or a desire to appear patriotic and/or friendly to whoever is spreading the nonsense. As Kirsty Lang of the BBC said to Poole: "It's much easier to take the language that's given to you, and the government knows that full well. So if you keep saying 'coalition forces,' 'coalition forces,' people will use it. I think people do need to be more careful. They do take phrases willy-nilly from the government without thinking, without seriously analysing what they say."

She's right, and so is Poole. He does lean to the left, which will give certain readers an excuse to dismiss his arguments out of hand without giving them fair consideration, but that's just Unspeak in another guise: Unreading. Maybe Poole could have given himself a bit more credibility by taking on malefactors of the left more than he does (certainly there are plenty of them), but that doesn't diminish the force of his argument.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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