Lies, damned lies and language

Sep 04 2011, 00:46 IST
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SummaryEvery now and then a political word loses all meaning and gets laughed out of use. It happened recently to “freedom”, so overused by George W Bush that in the end it simply came to mean anything he supported.

Simon Kuper

Every now and then a political word loses all meaning and gets laughed out of use. It happened recently to “freedom”, so overused by George W Bush that in the end it simply came to mean anything he supported. “Family values”—for 20 years a handy phrase with which to harass gays, single mothers and Bill Clinton—faded away as politicians noticed that ever fewer voters lived in traditional families.

George Orwell, in his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language (just 13 pages long, yet the complete guide on how to write), lists some other “worn-out and useless” words and phrases that were disappearing: jackboot, Achilles’ heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno. Political language, writes Orwell, “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” He believed that bad language stopped people from thinking clearly. With a new political season about to start, it is a good time to get rid of another batch of bogus words and phrases:

The American people. Used in political argument as a proxy for the speaker himself: “The American people want . . . ”

Austerity. Chosen by Merriam-Webster dictionary editors as “word of the year” for 2010, due to a sharp rise in the number of people seeking a definition on its website. The word appeals to politicians because it has connotations of virtue. “Austerity” evokes monastic ascetics who shun worldly goods.

In real life, “austerity” (or “belt-tightening” or, in the US, “small government”) usually means taking money from poor, sick or old people. If you believe this is good policy, you shouldn’t need to cloud it in euphemism.

Community. A word with several bogus meanings. The first, often used during the recent British riots, is a euphemism for “neighbourhood” or “town”. You might wish your neighbourhood were a “community” but using the word does not make it so. “Community” is also often used to mean “ethnic group”: the “Jewish community”, “Dominican

community”, “black community”, etcetera. In this usage, the pretence is that all black people, for instance, are united and believe pretty much the same things. You can then go and see their “community leaders”, who will tell you what the “community” wants.

These “community leaders” tend to be elderly conservative men, often self-appointed. A good response to “community leaders” is what a peasant says to King Arthur in Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

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