George Carlin on “Soft Language”

In the following Youtube clip from a stand-up routine, George Carlin goes after “soft language,” and his critique mirrors Orwell’s, right down to the preference for short words over long words:

George Carlin, “soft language”

So, to recap, the American (and British?) name for the affliction whereby soldiers’ minds and nervous systems break down because of being in or near battle goes from “shell shock” (WWI) to “battle fatigue” (WWII) to “operational exhaustion” (Korean War) to “post-traumatic stress syndrome [PTSD]” (Viet Nam War and, so far, thereafter).

A more extensive review of the terms for the conditions–going back to early Greek civilization–may be bound on


Note that in the 17th century, a German doctor called the condition “nostalgia,” which seems bizarre until we learn that he was focusing on such symptoms as listlessness, apparent longing, sighing, and moaning. Still: nostalgia?

It’s difficult to disagree with Carlin about the softening of language. However, it’s easier to disagree with him on his final point, which is that if the language had not been softened, Viet Nam War veterans would have received more care for their condition, for the cynicism cites as one source of deliberate softening arguably obtains no matter what the condition is known as. States don’t treat returning soldiers as well as they should. States would rather “invest” the money in preparation for “the next war” (or the perpetual war for perpetual peace, which is what Gore Vidal called America’s military-industrial obsession) than in taking care of those who barely survived previous wars and who still suffer.

Of course, the treatment of African American veterans has tended to be even worse. W.E.B. Du Bois wrote an essay, “Returning Soldiers,” in which he noted that African American soldiers returning from WWI were being lynched, in uniform, in the South; that Black soldiers who had fought “for freedom” in Europe were being denied the right to vote (among other rights) in the South; and that, all over the country, employment and educational opportunities for Blacks, compared those for Whites, were still awful.

Another way to complicate the Orwell/Carlin critique of soft language and euphemism is to note that, in spite of the changing terminology, the medical understanding and treatment of PTSD has improved, even if the resources for treating remain insufficient. But Orwell and Carlin choose to focus entirely on the virtues of blunt talk (and writing) and vice of “making murder sound respectable” (Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”).

Word Under Suspicion: “Strategist”

I’ve had a bit more time to glance at some of the cable-TV hybrid shows that sprinkle interviews and holdings forth with “news”–mostly headlines and videos.

I have noticed that many of the guests are still referred to as “Democratic strategists” or “Republican strategists,” with no other reference to the person’s qualifications, expertise, or employment.

I suspect, but do not know, that the producers of these shows generate a list of people who are presentable and glib, and if the person doesn’t even work for a think-tank or run a business or teach at a university (etc.), the catch-all “strategist” is used.

When a word like this becomes generic and popular, I get suspicious because it gets less precise. Second, are they really strategists? Are they even tacticians? I think they are primarily people who are willing to be interviewed and who are relatively comfortable on TV. I think they should be described as “citizens” unless the producers can come up with something more specific with regard to expertise or experience. I’m sure they are not strategists–designers of broad plans to guide a Party.

It’s good to be suspicious of words that have become widely accepted but don’t seem to denote much, as Orwell noted, chiefly with regard to worn metaphors and stock-phrases.

Get a Load of Howard Kurtz on Olbermann

Wild Bill has forwarded me Howard Kurtz’s piece on the firing of Keith Olbermann, something HK attributes to Olbermann’s anger:

” […]But with fame, fortune and better ratings came an emboldened sense of his own power, aided and abetted by his network. During the 2008 campaign, Griffin allowed Olbermann, along with onetime Democratic strategist Chris Matthews, to anchor MSNBC’s news coverage on primary and convention nights, drawing protests from NBC’s old guard.

One night, when GOP strategist Mike Murphy got into an argument with Matthews, Olbermann could be overheard saying, “Let’s wrap him up, all right?” Another time, while conservative morning host Joe Scarborough was arguing that John McCain was becoming more competitive against Obama, Olbermann, sitting in the anchor chair, muttered, “Get a shovel.”

“I mean, ‘Get a shovel’? Keith, my God,” Scarborough complained. Griffin finally junked the plan, installing David Gregory as the anchor for live political events. But that was then: with Obama in the White House for the midterm elections, Olbermann led the team coverage, along with Maddow, Matthews, O’Donnell, Schultz and liberal commentator Gene Robinson.

By the time Griffin suspended Olbermann late last year for violating network rules by contributing to Democratic candidates, there were deep scars on both sides. When Olbermann threatened to air his grievances on other networks, Griffin vowed to fire him.

The relationship with management kept deteriorating to the point that divorce became inevitable. Even those sympathetic to Olbermann came to believe that his deep well of anger, the secret of his box-office success, often got the best of him.

In the interest of disclosure, I should admit that I find Kurtz’s show on CNN–in which he purports to monitor TV “journalism”–unwatchable. What he considers controversial usually bores me, and he never gets below the surface to discuss the structural ills of his medium, those having to do with corporate ownership, political spectacle, the disappearance of a genuine “Left” on TV (whereas the Right flourishes and controls one cable network, having erased the line between a major political party and a network completely), and so on.

Having said that, I feel the same way about his diagnosis of why Olbermann got fired. His examples of “anger” or ludicrous. Apparently he wanted to end one interview, and in another instance he used an apt colloquialism to call “bullshit” on the insipid Scarborough. Sure, maybe “get a shovel” is unprofessional, but given the cable landscape, just what counts as “professional” now? But evidence of “anger”? Huh?

Maybe Olbermann’s a hot-head. I don’t know. If that’s Kurtz’s point, he needs to give us more evidence, and needs to cite more than “even those sympathetic to Olbermann” as reliable sources.

I don’t have any evidence either, just experience and some intuition, both of which suggest to me that there was an old-fashioned power-conflict between labor (Olbermann) and management (his bosses), and management, which has all the power, won. I know also that if you’re a manager with some self-confidence, you learn to manage your best athletes, so to speak. If the “shovel” thing was Olbermann’s worst gaff, then apparently the rest of the “anger” (?) showed up behind the scenes. In which case you let him blow off steam, and/or you tell him to knock it off and cool down. But to fire him just shows where the real rage may lie; it’s that management-rage that’s often covered by a cool veneer and often speaks in grave tones about “civility.”

MSNBC showed Keith Olbermann who was boss.

If middle-of-the road Keith Olbermann and Ed Schultz are the bucking broncos of MSNBC, then “anger” isn’t the chief problem.

Howard Kurtz, company man.

What a Difference a Phrase Makes

On National Public Radio on 6 January 2011, I listened to a report about the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  I nearly veered off the road when the following came over my car’s radio:

“Transocean, BP and Halliburton each declined to comment for this story. But Jack Gerard, the president of the American Petroleum Institute, stresses that the Deepwater Horizon incident was an exception.

” ‘The oil and gas industry has been in the Gulf of Mexico for 65 years, and we’ve drilled over 42,000 wells in the Gulf of Mexico. This was the first incident that has occurred of this magnitude,’ he says.”

Given that all other incidents — Mr. Gerard could not trouble himself to say “oil spill” or “environmental disaster” — are minuscule relative to the 2010 “incident,” I do not doubt that this was was the first of this magnitude.

Indeed, Mr. Gerard comes close to saying nothing.  Like the public relations guru he is, he gets his preferred denominator — 42,000 wells — before an audience.  Beyond that his statement is inconsequential and inconsequent by design.

I do not seem to recall a similar response to 9/11:  “Al Qaeda has been in the United States for years and attacked the World Trade Center previously.  The 9/11 incident was the first occurrence of this magnitude.”

Maybe Osama bin Laden needs an American PR firm.

Political Scandal

The word “scandal” has a more complicated etymology than one might expect. Briefly, it was even used as a verb–in the way we use “scandalize”–around the 13th century.

From the OED online, here is a definition with which we’re familiar:

3. a. A grossly discreditable circumstance, event, or condition of things.

But it can also refer to false imputation–“mere rumor.” In legal language, it appears to refer to kinds of slander and libel.

Political “controversy” seems to mutate into political “scandal” when someone or some force, like the press, establishes a lie: Watergate; Clinton vis a vis Lewinsky; Larry Craig; Mark Sanford.

When does a scandal, however, mutate into a career-ending precipitating event? Amid all the potential correlatives, one simple factor may obtain: the votes, literally and figuratively. Nixon was going to lose the vote in impeachment, and he’d lost the figurative vote among his supporters, such as Attorneys General and Republican Senators. Clinton was not going to lose the vote in impeachment. The Senate was not going to push out Craig, and apparently not enough voters were so disgusted by Sanford’s behavior to recall him (assuming recall is possible in the state).

If we the people have become inured to political scandal, perhaps we can be understood if not forgiven: politicians are shameless, and media thrive on attempting to shame them: a beautiful friendship. Thus politicians will almost always try to survive the scandal through crisis-management and/or denial, and media will be tempted to generate a scandal even when one may not be there. Weary, we watch the spectacle but are not scandalized.

Much that occurred on Bush’s and Cheney’s watch might qualify as scandalous: Cheney’s meeting with cronies from the energy industry; torture; revealing the identity of a spy; lying about WMD and Al Qaeda/Iraq connections. But Bush and Cheney never paid a cost for any, all, and other scandals. Arguably, the GOP paid a price later, but (for example) if McCain had been a better candidate with a better campaign, he might well have defeated Obama in spite of Bush-baggage.

The same goes for Clinton’s “sex scandal”; he didn’t pay the ultimate professional cost.

That for each of these scandals, a mountain of counter-rhetoric quickly grew, may help to account for the lessened impact and consequences of each. Thus many think Cheney was right to claim executive privilege and not release notes; “waterboarding isn’t really torture”–it’s an “enhanced interrogation technique” [calling George Orwell!]; Joe Wilson was really at fault, and Rove slips through the prosecutor’s fingers; “the best intelligence” suggested there were WMD; Clinton was lying just about sex, and the Republicans persistently hunted him, so let him stay in office; and so on. For Republicans, FOX News often serves as a counter-rhetoric generator, and Clinton had plenty of defenders (including Geraldo Rivera regarding the alleged Arkansas land-scandal).

After Watergate, the politicians seem to have gotten a lot better at playing the scandal-game; indeed, they turned it into a game, one we watch.

Stock Market Crashes; So Does Figurative Language

From an unsystematic scan of multiple online articles about yesterday’s stock-market crash, I have retrieved the following figurative language used in connection with the story and with Wall Street trading in general:

* many experts first attributed the crash to a “fat-thumbed” or “fat-fingered” trader, and one expert on the Rachel Maddow Show opined that a trader had “fat-thumbed” the crash; that a crash might be caused by a single corpulent digit gives me all the confidence in the world in our financial system

* roller-coaster–not a good comparison, in my view, because is supposed to go up and down on a secure, engineered track and then come to rest–all predictably

* excessive volatility, spike in volatility; doesn’t “volatility” by definition suggest potential excess, which might include spiking?

* gyrations–Yeats would have liked this one; not sure how applicable it is to the stock market

* sell-off; this is different from selling, I gather; it does not seem to be paired with a “buy-on”

* fluctuation–ah, how very gentle

*knee-jerk reaction–well, when one’s knee jerks in reaction to being struck by a physician’s rubber hammer, one is thought to be reacting appropriately, but people seem to use “knee-jerk reaction” to suggest something abnormal or irrational

* one expert wrote that the “sliding” was “fueled” by . . . whatever: can sliding be fueled?

* one writer described what happened as a stock-market bungee-jump

* one writer opined that stocks were “buzz-sawed”

All of this language tempts me to recommend that we change Wall Street to Gall Street, to think that the market is “free” in the sense that is is free from reason [and note that once the crash happened, officials simply and arbitrarily canceled trades: exactly how “free-markety” is that?],  to hope (foolishly, I admit) that Congress passes financial reform that isn’t another joke to amuse financial lobbyists as they knock back a scotch,  and to hope that Congress passes  reform that will regulate the market in financial metaphors.  –Not censorship of language, mind you, just some regulation of metaphors.

The Perils of Euphemism

Rejected on Dance Floor, Man Beats Woman in Bar Restroom


The New York Times 11 March 2010

“It was about two hours before closing time early on Thursday at Social, a Midtown bar, when the man approached a woman as she danced.

“The woman, 29, rebuffed the man’s advances and went to the restroom in the bar’s basement, the police said.

“Minutes later, the man burst through a stall door and began savagely attacking the woman, beating her as he tried to remove her pants, the police said. She fought back, and was able to avoid being sexually assaulted — but not before the man broke her nose and one of her eye sockets, leaving her unconscious and sprawled in a pool of blood.”

How was this NOT a sexual assault?  Because the victim fended off rape?

This shows anew how polite language — preferring “sexual assault”  to “rape” — can burden those who do not think about what they write.

The authors describe assault and battery by a man against a woman.  How was this NOT a sexual assault?

Maybe Mr. Schmidt or Mr. Baker should sit on the commode and await my bursting into the stall.  I’ll then punch one of them  until he agrees that an assault has occurred.  Then we’ll troop the other author in and repeat the process.

Too Big Too Fail, Too Small To Matter

“Too Big Too Fail” entered active U.S. parlance, and perhaps even global gab, during the latest and one of the worst spasms of so-called free-market capitalism, which resembles that Exxon tanker driven by a drunk. AIG [please fill in the words for the initials according to your own satiric tastes], Citi Bank [the second i in itself should doom this bank], and other confederacies of crooks were said to be too big to fail, so that U.S. taxpayers were supposed to be resigned to the resulting extortion.

The unspoken but indubitable counterpart to Too Big To Fail is, of course, Too Small To Matter. A person, group, business, or organization is too small to matter when it has insufficient juice to influence the ship of stasis. Who cares if your small business can’t get credit even though it has shown it can repay a loan? Who cares if 30-40 million don’t have health insurance? Who cares if the thief running the bank that was too big to fail is now injecting his “lifestyle” with another load of your money?

“Too Big To Fail” means, perhaps, that the system has already failed.

Lyly, Blair, and Euphemism

Let’s concern ourselves directly with the term, “euphemism.” Oops: we must take a detour first. I don’t like when that happens.

Detour: I was taught by several professors (and I still assume) that the word “euphemism” came into English via the influence of John Lyly’s enormously popular work Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit--Euphues being the main character, of course.

It seems one cannot prove the connection by citing the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language, however. Here is the OED’s second definition of the word, followed by its citations:

2. An instance of this figure; a less distasteful word or phrase used as a substitute for something harsher or more offensive.
1793 BEATTIE Moral Sc. §866 The euphemism [‘he fell asleep’] partakes of the nature of metaphor. 1860 FROUDE Hist. Eng. VI. 27 foot-n., A shorn crown..a euphemism for decapitation. 1865 TYLOR Early Hist. Man. vi. 143 The euphemism of calling the Furies in the Eumenides. 1877 E. COUES Fur Anim. vii. 216 The Skunk yields a handsome fur, lately become fashionable, under the euphemism of ‘Alaska Sable’.

I cherish the “sable” example.

(The OED also provides the Greek roots, if you’re interested.)

Lyly’s work appeared in 1578. Here is a link to a biographical sketch of the author:

And, from the work, here is a brief excerpt, which illumines Euphues and other users of euphemisms (and we all use them):

“The freshest colors soonest fade, the teenest razor soonest turneth his edge, the finest cloth is soonest eaten with moths, and the cambric sooner stained than the coarse canvas: which appeared well in this Euphues, whose wit being like wax apt to receive any impression, and having the bridle in his own hands, either to use the rein or the spur, disdaining counsel, leaving his country, loathing his old acquaintance, thought either by wit to obtain some conquest, or by shame to abide some conflict, and leaving the rule of reason, rashly ran unto destruction. Who preferring fancy before friends, and his present humor, before honor to come, laid reason in water being too salt for his taste, and followed unbridled affection, most pleasant for his tooth.”

[I took this excerpt from]

End of detour. Euphues is shallow and seems to speak and to behave the way he does because he wants to entertain and to be liked. So his euphemisms, etc., lead him away from honor and reason and toward inappropriate ends, but they don’t yet have the sinister political and social effects that Orwell identifies. In “the” essay, Orwell claims political language is full of euphemisms, but less predictably, he claims,

“The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism.” How fascinating that Orwell–vaguely?–changes the meaning of euphemism from denoting a word that clouds meaning or takes detours (circumlocution) to denoting a whole style of writing or speech. In so doing, he seems to take the word all the way back to 1578 and to Euphues’s broad range of behavior.

By the way, if you were puzzled by Lyly’s use of “teenest” in connection with razors, you “aren’t alone<' which is a euphemism. The OED on "teen" used this way:

¶3. ? Corruption of keen. rare.

When a question mark precedes a definition and the definition begins with “Corruption,” the OED is unamused, which is a euphemism.

Plain Language Hides Annihilation

With good reason, Orwell and others opposed vague and otherwise misleading language. Clear, precise language can do only so much, however, such as leading us to realize, to the extent we can, where civilization has taken us: to the threshold of annihilation.

Consider, for example, these two paragraphs from the Union of Concerned Scientists’ site, specifically from the page on “Nuclear Weapons and Global Security” (to which title I want to add the subtitle: “Never the Twain Shall Meet”):

“For the United States, about which the most is known, the president and other civilian leaders determine the overall purpose of U.S. nuclear forces and the types of missions for which they will be used. The actual numbers and weapon characteristics follow from more specific targeting decisions made by the Department of Defense. These decisions still rely on policies and assumptions about fighting and winning a nuclear war, which are a relic of the Cold War. The decisions made by the Department of Defense ultimately result in a long list of targets that U.S. nuclear forces must be able to destroy: missile silos, air bases, communication and command centers, and other military and industrial installations.

For the United States, typically two or more warheads are assigned to each target so that there is a high probability of destroying it. These targeting decisions then set the required numbers and types of warheads in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. The base level of 2,200 warheads set by the Moscow Treaty thus indicates that U.S. nuclear doctrine requires being able to destroy roughly 1,000 targets after 2012. Presumably, most of these targets are in Russia and China.”

The bolding is mine. I should add that the Union, which relies on a variety of customary sources, estimates the current (March 2009) worldwide arsenal of nuclear warheads to be between 25,486 and 25,496.

“Win” is usually an unambiguous word, but when uttered in this context, it goes beyond ambiguous and straight to absurd without passing euphemism. In so doing, it reminds me of Dr. Strangelove[“Nobody said we weren’t going to get our hair mussed a little bit”], of course, but also of Luke’s retort in Cool Hand Luke:

“Wish you’d stop bein’ so good to me, cap’n.”

To Luke, “good” meant “bad,” with good reason. “Win” means “lose” in nuclear warfare, and the plain, clear language in the paragraphs above seems like a simple, easily interpreted mask–attached to a madman’s face.

“Security,” when uttered by policy-types, may qualify for the Cool-Hand-Luke reversal. Just what do they mean by “security,” whose “security,” achieved in what ways, and . . . “I wish you’d stop watching out for our security, cap’n.” Consider warrantless wire-tapping, the precipitous (at best) invasion and occupation of Iraq, the exposure of Valerie Plame out of spite, extraordinary rendition (wouldn’t Orwell have fun with that term?), Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and so on.

I should mention that at least one political scientist quibbles with the term “the occupation of Iraq” because after the U.S. invaded, Iraq became a nation (again, I guess, is the argument) and invited the U.S. in. So if a person breaks-and enters-your house looking for WMD, finds none, cooks an omelette, and lies on your couch, everything will be just fine if you say, “Please come in!” –Not a perfect analogy, I grant, but nonetheless: invited in?

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