“Never believe anything until it is officially denied,” is a useful saying, advising scepticism towards whatever the government claims to be doing. This is the right mental attitude for any journalist or observer of the political scene. But for sniffing out official or journalistic mendacity, evasion and ignorance, a good guide is the use of tired and misleading words or phrases, their real purpose being not to illuminate but to conceal.
Suspicion of an attempt to deceive should be aroused by any sighting of the word “community”, as in “international community” or “Islamic community”: the phrases suggest solidarity and consensus of opinion where it does not exist. More toxic are policies pretending that there is something called “the community” that can look after people hitherto cared for by the state. When care in the community was introduced in Britain, it meant that people living in mental hospitals which were being sold by the government were kicked out to be looked after by a community that either feared or ignored them.
Certain words should set alarm bells ringing. Description of anything as “robust” is usually bad news because it implies effective measures are going to be taken, when this is unlikely. For instance, Patrick McLoughlin, the Transport Minister, seeking to defuse the scandal over the West Coast railway, promised a “robust investigation”. On the other hand, robust, when applied to state security, means something unpleasant, so “robust interrogation” has become synonymous with torture.
“Remnants” in certain contexts has had a bad smell ever since US spokesmen started employing it after the invasion of Iraq in 2003: in phrases such as “remnants of Saddam Hussein’s regime” or “remnants of al-Qa’ida”. It was useful in trying to explain away how enemies that the US army claimed to have eliminated were still very much in business, blowing up American troops and generally creating mayhem. After a brief disappearance, the word was once again pressed into service by US officials this summer to explain why anti-Gaddafi rebels, previously much praised by the Western media, had burnt down the US consulate and killed the ambassador in Benghazi.
My brother Alexander, who died in July, used to write a section at the end of his column in Counterpunch newsletter denouncing words with the power “to debase and coarsen common speech by repeated and thoughtless use”. Now republished as a booklet – Guillotined, being a Summary Broadside against the Corruption of the English language – it is a pitiless identification and indictment by Alexander and Counterpunch readers of offending words and phrases. I used to contribute occasionally, and it was comforting to find that words that had been annoying me for years had been enraging so many others. Counterpunch readers have unerring judgement in identifying ghastly phrases; most of the following examples were contributed by them.
The offensiveness of words might spring from them being sloppy, boring, tired or having lost whatever edge they originally possessed. One example is “tsunami” that began to be used after the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. Across the world there were headlines about “tsunamis of fraud” or other crimes that invariably turned out to be less exciting and catastrophic than claimed.
Users of clichés frequently have more sinister intentions beyond laziness and conventional thinking. Relabelling events often entails subtle changes of meaning. War produces many euphemisms, downplaying or giving verbal respectability to savagery and slaughter. Alexander rightly targets “blood and treasure” as a deceptive phrase “used with great solemnity to describe the cost, often the supposedly worthy sacrifice, attached to America’s wars”.
I have always found the phrase “in harm’s way” peculiarly loathsome, but it has become a common way of describing the danger facing US soldiers sent to places where people may try to kill them. By steering clear of words such as “very dangerous”, politicians prevent too vivid a picture forming in the public mind of young American soldiers having their heads or limbs blown off.
My brother favoured the swift elimination of such words, suggesting that they be hurried off for immediate execution, like so many French aristocrats dispatched to the guillotine. Not for nothing was this section of his column called Tumbril Time! –recalling the dung carts used to transport prisoners to their death. Revolutionary justice was severe towards phrases drained of meaning, such as “sustainable development”, a cliché beloved of fundraisers and grant-givers. This term should have been knocked on the head long ago, but it still maintains a zombie-like existence, as do “iconic”, “stakeholder” and “game-changer”.
There is much more at stake here than merely cleaning up a nation’s prose style. Certain phrases seek to reshape perception, a good example being the contemptuous downgrading of eyewitness accounts as “anecdotal evidence”. This phrase is used by official bodies covering up their failure to avert a disaster about which they had been repeatedly forewarned. It can be effectively deployed to suggest that first-hand testimony is as tainted as second-hand information, while “anecdotal” implies a lack of seriousness, as with a story told at a party or in a pub.
Take the scandal unmasked by French investigators in 2010 revealing that a manufacturer of breast implants had fraudulently made them out of mattress gel using industrial-grade silicon. Some 47,000 women in Britain had these potentially dangerous implants, despite British surgeons warning as long ago as 2006 that they were prone to rupture. Two surgeons had experience of “catastrophic disintegration” of the implants. Why had the MHRA, the British medical devices watchdog, not responded to these warnings? An official report said the MHRA claimed that the evidence was anecdotal, although it came from surgeons with personal knowledge of the devices, and, therefore, the agency discounted it.
Re-labelling does not always work. In Iraq, the US army faced the IED – Improvised Explosive Device – which was not so different from the old-fashioned mine that had been around since the 16th century. The new name was devised by the British Army in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, but in Iraq and Afghanistan its hi-tech connotations helped avert accusations that the US army should have used part of its gigantic budget to counter them.
Perhaps it is not entirely in the public interest that these annoying or misleading phrases should all be eliminated. Their persistent use by public figures and opinion-formers sends up useful smoke signals about where dead bodies are buried. The Blair government’s use of a buzzword such as “conversation” – to be conducted with the British people about some issue of policy – was geared to suggest chattiness and fake intimacy. In practice, it reinforced people’s sense that they were about to be diddled again by a phoney sense of participation and that the real decisions had already been taken.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.