Steven Poole traverses well-trod terrain in Unspeak. The
abuse and misuse of decent, ordinary language for ulterior (and some times
ignoble) purposes was a subject of great concern to George Orwell, of course,
and more recently to a UK 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
That all three writers cited above are from the UK 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
"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
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 concentrated largely on how “Unspeak” is used
simultaneously to advance and disguise the claims of war and corporate
interests. The master pieces of the art are indeed “ethnic cleansing”, “war on
terror”, “repetitive administration”. Rhetorically “Unspeak” is a kind of invasive
procedure: it wants to by-pass 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 so 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 [sic] and delegitimise [sic] the
target. If his victims are 'innocent', the terrorist is 'evil' - so George W.
Bush characterises 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
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, but that doesn't diminish the force of his argument.