Tuesday, February 7

Unspeak - book of the week


By Sarah-Jane Hollands, right,
Literary Correspondent
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Book of the week undoubtedly has to be Unspeak by Steven Poole, published by Little, Brown, price £9.99.
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What do the terms community, tragedy, freedom, terror and extremist have in common? They are all current tools in what journalist Steven Poole calls "Unspeak" - "language as a weapon", used to head off dissent or debate.
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Whilst Poole concentrates on the US in this book, surely it is the EU and the Europhiles who are the biggest culprits and greatest exponents of "unspeak" - single market, integration, harmonisation, enterprise and democracy - the latter being anything but democratic.
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Not a new technique by any means, but one which the current World leaders love so much, that a study of it is not just timely and welcome but (you'll feel once you have read this book) urgent.
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The book's title is a definite nod to Orwell's "Newspeak". (One of the features of "Newspeak" was that it was the only contracting language in the World - less words available, meant less words with which to criticise the Government.) Orwell called political language "the defence of the indefensible, but the Bush White House is far more complacent that that.
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"Asymmetric warfare" - "the term employed by the US military for fighting people who don't line up properly to be shot", euphmisms such as this have become the only terms used.
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Poole, left, reminds us of the more familiar terms taken from the last twenty odd years - collateral damage, homeland security, ethnic cleansing, and supplys brief, blunt analysis of their wishful and actual meanings.
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When is a war on terror not a war? When it might attract the attention of the Geneva Convention, it seems - then it becomes a conflict, with detainees that might otherwise be described as prisoners.
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In a fact-packed chapter on abuse, Poole quotes the official description of the death by beating of a detainee at the US base in Bagram as a sort of accident following "repetitive administration of legitimate force".
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The verbal ingenuity in Unspeak is startling; "insurgents" in Iraq have been recently upgraded to "anti-Iraq forces" and aparently the Israelis describe their eight foot high concrete wall as a "fence".
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It comes as a shock to realise how insiduously we've accepted the phrase "climate change" in place of "global warming", or the starker "global meltdown" as one climate scientist would prefer it to be known.
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Unsurprisingly, the need to become immersed in this maddening doublespeak has left the author prone to bouts of heavy sarcasm and it would appear that at times he is on the verge of losing his temper.
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In many ways, I wish he had; a verbal tirade would serve to remind us all what someone sounds like when they're being sincere - a quality sadly lacking in many areas of life these days.
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This book will not change your life, but it will make you read political press releases with whole new eyes.
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4 comments:

Newsandseduction said...

looks like an interesting book!

Manfred Jacobs said...

I admit, it is annoying when political adversaries invent their own terms for their own purposes, but I think those kind of word tricks don't accomplish as much as people think. There's a quack called George Lakoff in America telling the Democrats that all their ills have to do with language; that is, that the Republicans wouldn't be popular if they weren't so good at word tricks. I think most people (or most people who vote) are bright enough to know what's being said & whether they agree or disagree, even when it's being said with slippery phrases. Thought this was good on it:
http://jadedlistener.wordpress.com/2006/01/05/
Anyhow, great site.

Peter Troy said...

I wish youu were correct Sir.

In the business community of the UK the pro-EU UK government has convinced much of our small busineess community that grants are available from 'European money'. The truth is that it is British tax payers money given back for which they should be humbley pleased !

I am writing a book on this issue the working title being 'The Bribary of British business.'

Kelly said...

I wish it were true that voters were well-read and well-informed. And it isn't called "political rhetoric" for nothing! We all like hearing what we think is the truth and no matter how the terms are used they are the same thing.

We went from "layoff" to "downsizing" to "economic reversals resulting in modifications of workforce needs". It amounts to the same thing and that is people out of jobs through no fault of their own.

I believe that the Republicans are popular not because they are good with word tricks but because they don't say one thing, promise something else, and do something else entirely. I could be wrong. There has to be a first time after all.