Why Don’t We Say What We Mean and Mean What We Say?

Writing in The Independent, journalist Johann Hari calls for a “housecleaning” of the English language to get rid of words and phrases that mislead rather than inform. He recalls George Orwell’s warning that language would inevitably become cluttered with phrases that have lost their meaning – or, worse, are actually “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

I don’t know who would have the power to clean up the language, and I am not sure how they would go about it, but perhaps they could start with journalism school. When I went to school, we were encouraged to avoid cliches, platitudes and jargon, and to substitute fresh words and phrases that conveyed our meanings as exactly as possible.

jargonNow, the airwaves and newspaper columns are loaded with jargon and double-speak. For example, reporters and commentators have adopted the language of politics with gusto, reveling in such “insider” expressions as “enhanced interrogation” and “extraordinary rendition.” Why don’t they say “torture” and “the apprehension and illegal transfer of a person from one state to another”? I suppose it’s because the jargon words are safer. Journalists who call a spade a spade might get into trouble with their corporate bosses.

But the way they use – make that abuse – words to shade the truth is dangerous. It’s no wonder that a recent poll shows 59 percent  of Americans consider themselves “conservative.” I am sure few of those who responded to the poll know what “conservative” means. If they do, they’re smarter than I am. How would you define it?

I suppose I am conservative in some ways. After all, I believe in conserving our natural heritage, protecting the rain forests, setting aside wilderness reserves. And I would consider recycling “conservative.” Wouldn’t you? There’s a lot to be said for conserving the finite resources of the planet. But much of what the media attribute to “conservatives” is actively destructive – warmongering, for example.

Then there’s the word “moderate.”  Will somebody tell me what on earth is “moderate” about a bunch of Democrats who want to perpetuate a health care system based on profit, greed, fraud and oppression? To me that is “extreme” – as in extremely cruel.

I could go on and on… Murky words like “terrorists” spring to mind… “leftist”… “right-wing” … We use them every day but we don’t have a clear-cut definition in mind.

One of the most dastardly phrases is “collateral damage,” a bloodless expression used to disguise the mindless slaughter of men, women and children, whose only fault was being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And here’s another one – borrowed from Hari’s article:

“Climate change.” This phrase was invented by the Republican pollster Frank Luntz, when he discovered that focus groups found the phrase “global warming” too scary. Climate change sounds nice and gentle, and evokes our latent awareness that the climate has changed naturally throughout history. Even “global warming” is problematic, since it makes us picture putting our feet up in the sun. The more accurate phrase would be “the unraveling of the ecosystem”, “climate chaos”, or “catastrophic man-made global warming.” They’re a mouthful, but they are honest. 

Hari pleads, in the interests of honest debate, for a better way of expressing ideas:

If they are dead babies, call them dead babies. If the ecosystem is unraveling, say the ecosystem is unraveling. It is only when we honestly describe the world that we can begin to change it.

All I can add to that is, good luck!