Thursday, September 03, 2009

On Newspeak

Johann, in the Indy, is arguing for a little linguistic cleansing:
"The English language needs periodically to be given a spring-clean, where we scrape off the phrases that have become stuck to the floor and toss out the rotting metaphors that have fallen down the back of the settee."
He then goes on to use as examples commonplace phrases and expressions that aren't metaphors at all - but are objectionable to him because they fail, in his view, to convey the proper emotion. Because like most journalists, Johann feels more deeply than thou. So, for example, he finds the easily understood phrase 'infant mortality' fairly offensive because it is too colourless and unemotional:
"If they are dead babies, call them dead babies."
Well, to be pedantic, infant mortality measures the rate at which children between 0-1 die per thousand. But 'infant mortality' is a less cumbersome phrase.

I wouldn't want to make too much of this. Columnists are paid to go all prophetic on us and wax lyrical like one of the minor prophets of the Torah - and I guess on a good day Johann does this as well as anyone else. But there was one of his examples that annoyed me and it was this:
"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 unravelling of the ecosystem", "climate chaos", or "catastrophic man-made global warming." They're a mouthful, but they are honest."
This would be easier to take this seriously as a candidate on his list for phrases to be expunged from the English language if he didn't use it himself - in the context of 'climate change deniers'. Now, I understand next to nothing about the science behind global warming but I know enough about history to recognise that this form of words is borrowed directly from those used to describe those who deny that the Holocaust took place. Which brings me to my point: my candidates for being expunged from the English language are those expressions that compare people to Nazis where it is not justified. I repeat, I don't know anything about the science of climate change but with this expression, people who dispute the evidence pertaining to global warming - while they may be obscurantist, and/or defending various economic interests - are being compared to those who are morally, intellectually and politically offensive enough to deny the Holocaust. This is a linguistic symptom of the trivialisation of the twentieth century's most heinous crime. I'll repeat what I said in a previous post: physician - heal thyself.

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