Long the helpless captive of politicians, generals and financiers, the English language has endured such enhanced interrogation that it’s likely to say anything at all nowadays just to make the pain stop.
Millions lose their jobs to “achieve synergy-related headcount restructuring goals.” Families are murdered during “coercive diplomacy” carried out by “peacekeepers.” And acres of pristine land are turned into “resource development parks.”
If these phrases confuse you — that is, if you’re not living in Washington — you’ll want to consult “Spinglish” (Blue Rider, $27.50). It’s a full-figured (i.e. fat) dictionary of deliberately deceptive language by comic writers Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf — “Winners of the Bullitzer Prize.”
Their alphabetical listing of tortured language — from “all-out strategic exchange” (nuclear war) to “zero latency” (without delay) — provides a witty (deeply depressing) survey of the terms and phrases powerful people use to disguise their actions, obscure their motives and, well . . . lie.
While euphemisms, slang and jargon may be common subspecies, the essential quality of “Spinglish,” the authors say, is that it’s “designed principally to deceive . . . contrived for self-serving purposes. It comes out of advertising and public relations agencies, law firms, think tanks, political campaign organizations and military planning groups — anyone and everyone eager to hide the particular self-interested agenda they are pursuing.”
Oral administration fee: What a hospital charges you for bringing a pill in a paper cup to your bedside.
You may have thought that Orwell exposed this sort of thing more than 60 years ago, but Beard and Cerf say the situation has deteriorated beyond political propaganda. “War isn’t just Peace anymore,” they say. “It’s ‘assertive disarmament’ and ‘kinetic military action.’ And even Peace isn’t just Peace: It’s a ‘temporary cessation of hostilities.’ ”
They blame the 24-hour news cycle and the Internet (what else?!). All that additional public scrutiny has created an ever-greater demand for more clever linguistic manipulation to hide what’s really going on.
Controlled flight into terrain. A U.S. National Transportation Safety Board term for an airplane crash. [See also: failure to maintain clearance from the ground.]
Given our “period of economic adjustment” (recession), perhaps it’s not surprising to see that the longest entry in “Spinglish” is reserved for the verb “to fire” — more than 40 twisted synonyms. Even the authors were impressed by the linguistic ingenuity demonstrated by people who make a living by depriving other people of making a living. “From a public relations point of view, large-scale layoffs in particular are regarded as a very serious corporate black eye,” they point out. “A huge amount of effort has gone into finding ways of making them sound like something else. It’s free-enterprise’s mealy-mouthed equivalent of the Defense Department’s terms for ‘kill,’ like ‘neutralize,’ ‘dynamically address’ and ‘totally and completely immobilize.’ ”
Beard and Cerf worship at the feet of Edward Bernays, a public relations genius who spun through most of the 20th century. They cite his inspiring promotion of Lucky Strike cigarettes as “torches of freedom” and his ability to promote Dixie Cups by “convincing consumers that only disposable cups were safe.”
But they’re also quick to praise more recent masters such as Richard Nixon and his aides, “who gave us the ‘inoperative statements’ of the Watergate cover-up, and the alliance of neocons (most notably the Project for the New American Century) and Bush-era politicians who carefully crafted the terms, from ‘WMD’ to ‘regime change’ to ‘Coalition of the Willing,’ that talked the U.S. into an unnecessary war,” i.e. “liberation.”
Great restraint: What police officers always exercise up until the moment they are forced to shoot someone.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. His reviews appear on Wednesday in Style. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
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