The devil's lexicon: Unspeak exposes the language twisters.

Media criticism.
Jan. 22 2007 5:09 PM

The Devil's Lexicon

Unspeak exposes the language twisters.

Unspeak by Steven Poole

Unspeak, writer Steven Poole's term for a phrase or word that contains a whole unspoken political argument, deserves a place in every journalist's daily vocabulary. Such gems of unspeak, such as pro-choice and pro-life, writes Poole in the opening pages in his book Unspeak: How Words Become Weapons, How Weapons Become a Message, and How That Message Becomes Reality, represent

an attempt to say something without saying it, without getting into an argument and so having to justify itself. At the same time, it tries to unspeak—in the sense of erasing, or silencing—any possible opposing point of view, by laying a claim right at the start to only one choice of looking at a problem.

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Pro-life supposes that a fetus is a person and that those who are anti-pro-life are against life, he writes. Pro-choice distances its speakers from actually advocating abortion, while casting "adversaries as 'anti-choice'; as interfering, patriarchal dictators."

Poole's list of suspicious phrases rolls on for more than 200 pages. Tax relief and tax burden, which covertly argue that lowered taxes automatically relieve and unburden everybody. Friends of the Earth casts its opponents as enemies of the earth and implies that the Earth is befriendable, a big, huggable Gaia.

Poole cautions readers not to confuse unspeak with doublespeak, a word that grew out of the concepts of Newspeak and doublethink that George Orwell introduced in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Poole writes, "But Unspeak does not say one thing while meaning another. It says one thing while really meaning that one thing," and the confusion unspeak generates is almost always calculated and deliberate.

Poole calls community one of the most perfect political words in English because it

can mean several things at once, or nothing at all. It can conjure things that don't exist, and deny the existence of those that do. It can be used in celebration, or in passive-aggressive attack. Its use in public language is almost always evidence of an Unspeak strategy at work.

The plasticity of community allows it to encompass geography, ethnicity, profession, hobby, or religion, and in the mouths of diplomats and journalists can expand to include everybody, as in the international community, a concept that Justice Antonin Scalia once described—rightly—as "fictional."

We're drawn to the "semantically promiscuous" word, Poole writes, because it allows us to simultaneously express our tolerance for a group and our discomfort. For example: the homosexual community and the black community. People rarely refer to the heterosexual community, the white community, or even the Christian community, because in the United States and Britain, they are the "default" positions and carry the "privilege of not having to be defined by a limiting 'identity.' " Likewise, a group defined by the majority as transgressive, say, the Ku Klux Klan, would never qualify as a "community" even though it organizes itself with the same conscious effort as the "anti-war community."

Unspeak concurs with my position that journalists everywhere reject the word reform because it's become meaningless. He assails the Tories in England who spoke of "bogus asylum seekers" because the phrase destroys any presumption of sincerity, and served as code for "simple racism." When governments speak of a tragedy, they imply that the bloody results of their work were unforeseen—as if visited upon man by the gods—and nobody can be blamed. Surgical strike conveys the benevolent practice of medicine, ridding a target of its disease. Collateral damage redefines the death of innocents as injury. Smart weapons posit the opposite of dumb weapons that kill indiscriminately. Daisy cutter sanitizes the killing power of the daisy-cutter bomb. Weapons of mass destruction, which earlier referred to the horrific mechanized tools of warfare being stockpiled in the 1930s, now applies to biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons when possessed by nonstate actors or regimes in disfavor.