It was interesting to hear Colin Powell accuse France and Germany of cowardice in not wanting to go to war. Or, as he put more succinctly, France and Germany ‘are afraid of upholding their responsibility to impose the will of the international community’. Powell’s speech brings up one of the most outrageous but least examined aspects of this whole war on Iraq business. I am speaking about the appalling collateral damage already being inflicted on the English language.
Perhaps the worst impact is on our vocabulary. ‘Cowardice’, according to Colin Powell, is the refusal to injure thousands of innocent civilians living in Baghdad in order to promote US oil interests in the Middle East. The corollary is that ‘bravery’ must be the ability to order the deaths of 100,000 Iraqis without wincing or bringing up your Caesar salad.
I suppose Tony Blair is ‘brave’ because he is willing to expose the people who voted for him to the threat of terrorist reprisals in return for getting a red carpet whenever he visits the White House, while Chirac is a ‘coward’ for standing up to the bigoted bullying of the extremist right-wing Republican warmongers who currently run the United States.
In the same vein, well-fed young men sitting in millions of dollars’ worth of military hardware and dropping bombs from 30,000ft on impoverished people who have already had all their arms taken away are exemplars of ‘bravery’. ‘Cowardliness’, according to George W. Bush, is hijacking an aircraft and deliberately piloting it into a large building. There are plenty of things you could call that, but not ‘cowardly’. Yet when Bill Maher pointed this out on his TV show, Politically Incorrect, he was anathematised and the sponsors threatened to withdraw funding from the show.
Something weird is going on when not only do the politicians deliberately change the meanings of words, but also society is outraged when someone points out the correct usage.
Then there’s ‘the international community’. Clearly, Colin Powell cannot be talking of the millions who took to the streets last Saturday. The ‘international community’ he’s talking about must be those politicians who get together behind closed doors to decide how best to stay in power and enrich their supporters by maiming, mutilating and killing a lot of foreigners in funny clothes whom they’ll never see. And while we’re at it, what about that word ‘war’. My dictionary defines a ‘war’ as ‘open, armed conflict between two parties, nations or states’. Dropping bombs from a safe height on an already hard-pressed people, whose infrastructure is in chaos from years of sanctions and who live under an oppressive regime, isn’t a ‘war’. It’s a turkey shoot.
But then the violence being done to the English language is probably the price we have to pay for cheap petrol.
Language is supposed to make ideas clearer so that we can understand them. But when politicians such as Colin Powell, George W. Bush, and Tony Blair get hold of language, their aim is usually the opposite. That’s how they persuade us to take ludicrous concepts seriously. Like the whole idea of a ‘war on terrorism’. You can wage war against another country, or on a national group within your own country, but you can’t wage war on an abstract noun. How do you know when you’ve won? When you’ve got it removed from the Oxford English Dictionary?
When men in power propose doing something that is shameful, wrong and destructive, the first casualty is the English language. It would matter less if it were the only casualty. But if they carry on perverting our vocabulary and twisting our grammar, the result will spell death for many who are now alive.
TERRY JONES is a founder member of Monty Python.