Politics and Plain English

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Mon Sep 8 14:19:29 UTC 2008

Politics and Plain English

Posted by Linda Stamato September 07, 2008 8:35AM

As we head into the final phase of the presidential election, it's
essential to focus on the use of words and their meaning. It's not
just in the competitive campaigns, however, but political rhetoric in
general and it isn't just politics but political life, including
governance, in which words and their meanings require close scrutiny.
Speech can often seek to 'alter reality.' We should be prepared for

In this respect, I think the British may be on to something. And, as
is usually the case, when humor shows, the subject is a serious one.
According to the Associated Press, the Local Government Association
(LGA), a British body that represents local authorities across the
country, has told its members to stop using management buzzwords,
saying that they confuse people and prevent residents in their
localities from understanding what governments do.

British bureaucrats in England and Wales are being advised to avoid
certain "non words" if they want to be understood. (You can't make
these things up.) Leaving aside the possibility that government
officials may not want to be understood when they speak, some of them
anyway, the advice has potential, and not only in local government and
politics, but in other arenas as well.

For some time now, I've been constructing a list of words and phrases
that avoid clarity, that seem, intentionally, to obfuscate. This has
become a hobby of sorts, serving nothing more than my own amusement
(although it has gotten a bit out of hand during the current
presidency, but, that's a subject for another day). There is something
more here: a worthwhile cause may be taking shape to return English
speakers to plain English. Why not produce our own list of
"non-words"at www.njvoices.com and alert local governments and all of
those who interact with the public? On the list would appear words and
phrases that citizens would just as soon not see or hear anymore (and,
maybe, too, the words they might prefer instead).

Let's start, though, with the list the British have produced, because,
using a word frequently deployed there, it's brilliant! The A.P. says
the list includes popular but vague terms such as "empowerment,"
"coterminosity," (translation: a situation in which two organizations
oversee the same geographical area); "synergies" (combinations in
which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts--well that's
close anyway). And, there are the following: "Revenue stream" for
income as well as the imprecise "sustainable communities." (I dare
say, we're going to find it rough going to get rid of that one in this

"Stakeholders" is not acceptable either; What is wrong? asks the LGA,
with "local residents"? And, surely, "brainstorming" is preferred over
"thought showers." You read that right, "thought showers." What a
lovely thought, ideas raining down on the stakeholders, oops, local
residents. Members of the Tunbridge Wells Council, in southern
England, felt that "brainstorming" might offend people with epilepsy,
a condition that involves periodic electrical storms inside the brain
and so chose "thought showers" instead. Yet, the National Society for
Epilepsy said it had surveyed its members and they did not find the
term brainstorming offensive. Glad for that; it is not on LGA's list.

And this one is almost too good to be true: The LGA chair, Simon
Milton, is quoted as saying "Why do we have to have 'coterminous,
stakeholder engagement' when we could just talk to people instead?"

The Orwellian Present

Pushing this honest British assessment of language was none other than
George Orwell who was certainly well aware of the power that
politicians have to affect public policy through their language. The
author of the classic, "1984", also produced "The Politics of the
English Language" which has been repeatedly reprinted, understandably,
as it is a compelling essay in which he warns about corruption through
language. His experiences in the Second World War in the British
Ministry of Propaganda and Information, where he became acquainted
with the use of language by Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany, led him
to the conclusions he projected in "1984" in which the power of
communications and the sophisticated use of language--to control minds
through language--would be used by totalitarian governments to sustain
their power.


Plain English has contemporary advocates to be sure. None more
effective than William Lutz, professor of English at Rutgers
University's campus in Camden, New Jersey since 1991. He is the author
of Doublespeak: From "Revenue Enhancement" to "Terminal Living": How
Government, Business, Advertisers, Others Use Language to Deceive
You." (New York: Harper & Row. 1987). Professor Lutz specializes in a
related topic, doublespeak and the use of plain language. Lutz is
widely published on the topic of doublespeak or the manipulation of
language, and has also worked with corporations and government in the
use of 'plain language.' He finds government at the top in this
language challenge with business--with its penchant for obfuscation--a
short distance behind. (A Lutz sampler would highlight the following:
"Banks don't have "bad loans" or "bad debts"; they have "nonperforming
assets" or "nonperforming credits" which are "rolled over" or
"rescheduled." Corporations never lose money; they just experience
"negative cash flow," "deficit enhancement," "net profit revenue
deficiencies," or "negative contributions to profits.").

We might also consider some of those other arenas where straight talk
is welcome: how about sports finance? One might ask, why do Giants
fans need to translate the meaning of "personal seat license fees"
when the fee being invented and charged is a threshold fee for a seat
and season ticket? This fee, by the way, ranges from $500 to $150,000,
and, you still need to buy the season ticket! Attracted, no doubt, by
the clarity of the new-named fee, the Jets are studying the use of
PSLs as a "financing option," or, as you or I might put it, a new fee
to generate money for the team owners.

I'm not talking about big words, mind you, nor terminology appropriate
to academic disciplines, for example, or even a William Buckley-style,
polysyllabic, elegant turn of phrase; no I mean to eliminate, first of
all, those words and phrases that are simply unacceptably dense,
obtuse, and, frankly, seem posturing, intended for an inside crowd,
limited in range and definitely inaccessible to those who can follow
simple declarative sentences and understand words packed with direct
meaning and application.

In a recent issue of the New York Times, for example, a reference to
Maggie Jackson's book, "Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the
Coming Dark Age" (Prometheus), there is the phrase "executive
attention." What does it mean? The ability to plan, evidently, and to
make decisions. Why, then, not say so? Let's get rid of this one
before it takes hold.

And then we have the indecency penalty against CBS having to do with
Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction." Recall that Ms. Jackson bared
her breast during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show. Perhaps it was
the FCC's creative wording that led a federal appeals court to throw
out the indecency charge and revoke the $550,000 fine the FCC had

Recently, in this vein, the Corzine Adminsitration announced the
creation of the state Office of Supplier Diversity. It has to do with
improving the state's performance in the awarding of contracts to
businesses owned by women and minorities who, as an editorial in the
Star Ledger pointed out, are small businesses that lack the
"resources, expertise, and, most important, friends within the
political system to guide them through an arduous process." A worthy
objective, it would seem, but that title is something else.

Rhetoric and Politics

Rhetoric began with the Sophists in ancient Greece. They taught the
art of speaking and making persuasive arguments to men who needed to
represent themselves in a direct model of democracy. Chris Geyer, a
doctoral fellow in the composition and cultural rhetoric program at
Syracuse University, reminds us of this point in a recent column in
the "The Key Reporter" (Summer, 2008). Our Founding Fathers who had
formal training in rhetoric produced a form of government, and its
critical (written) backbone, that has certainly lasted well. Perhaps
we need to return to the spirit of those engaging exchanges as we
deliberate, analyze, and, in words and actions, govern ourselves.

Lutz may not be encouraging:

" I don't think you'll ever get rid of it, I don't think we can. It is
inherent in the function of language, to use language as a weapon or
as a tool to manipulate other people."

But, he offers some suggestions nonetheless:

" I think there are two things we can do. First of all, we can all
become much more aware of this language. We should be aware of it, so
that we can at least be defensive, and defend ourselves so that we're
not misled through it. But secondly, there are times when we simply
cannot tolerate this language. When we talk about important public
issues of national policy, we should not use double-speak, as a
nation. We should not use it ourselves. We should not allow the
politicians, who are speaking to us, to use it. Language that way can
be terribly corrupting in a society and can mislead all of us, and in
a democracy that depends upon the active participation of its
citizens, it can lead to cynicism and resentment and a withdrawal from
the political process."

It's not just political campaign rhetoric that we need to worry about
to be sure, it is the every day use of words in political and
governing contexts that requires our careful attention. According to
the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein language limits our world. But, we
need to make sense of our political world in order for democracy to
work, so, at least, we need to get back to plain language.

I suggest we take a small step in this direction. Let me know what
words you'd add to the delete list. New Jersey Voices can be the
repository, the keeper of the list of "non-words" generated on this
site, on this side of the ocean, words to be banished in an effort to
reclaim our legacy of clean and clear language, to raise awareness of
the potential of language to corrupt--and its capacity to
enlighten--and, by so doing, to improve the prospects for our


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