Humbug and rank hypocrisy

October 6, 2006

As most football fans know, Brighton and Hove Albion - my local team - desperately need a new stadium. The planned new complex at Falmer will slice into the Brighton University campus and destroy the building currently housing my office, which strikes me as scandalous. More interesting than my nimbyism, however, is the name regularly used by the club: the "community stadium". Never mind that the site will be owned as a profit-making concern by a private company and that the residents nearby fiercely oppose it: just use the word "community" and it sounds like a warm, cuddly project. Surely only nasty curmudgeons like me could object to something for the "community"?

Steven Poole's book devotes several pages to the misuse of the word "community", along with dozens of other expressions that carry unspoken assumptions and a heavy ideological load. Cynic that I am, even I was surprised to learn that oil companies have lobbied systematically for the scary words "global warming" to be replaced by "climate change" because "change" is at worst a neutral word and is often positive, and the phrase sounds as if it refers a local or regional issue rather than what it is - an impending planetary catastrophe.

Poole gives similar treatment to expressions such as "collateral damage" and "terrorist suspect". The book scythes nicely through some conceptual weeds, and the style is lively and engaging. Despite this, lots of it annoyed me.

Poole tells us explicitly that he is not a linguist and that he has no expertise in analysing language. Well, why not get some? Many superb books about the language of politics have appeared in recent years, notably Norman Fairclough's New Labour, New Language . Poole refers briefly to a tiny bit of this work, but he does not get the main point: mystification in language goes way beyond the vocabulary shenanigans that he unpacks in this book. It is also about grammatical choices, information packaging and text design. Amateurs regularly ignore these whole areas.

The most interesting thing about this book is the author's ideological stance. People who are against humbug and for plain talking usually present themselves as sound, commonsense types, too clever to fall for the extremes of right or left: in other words, liberals, or, to put it differently, Poole's starting point is roughly that of the BBC news. It is no coincidence that the BBC's John Humphreys recently wrote a similar book denouncing language abuses.

Now, I am with liberals such as Poole all the way when he derides creationism and when he exposes the sly misuse of the term "weapons of mass destruction" - the bad guys have them (or, as we now know, don't have them), whereas we use 15,000lb bombs that obliterate everything in a 250ft radius but call them "conventional weapons". Unfortunately, liberals, and the BBC news, constantly miss the point. What outraged most of the world was not our weaselly semantics but our laughable hypocrisy: we maintain huge nuclear arsenals but said that a tinpot dictator in Iraq was a threat to world peace. This book shows liberalism in all its glory and all its disastrous limitations.

Poole's solid common sense makes him mistakenly imagine that the etymology of loaded words such as "fundamentalist" tells us something about how they should be used today. This word actually derives from a Latin word meaning bottom or backside: but almost no one knows this, so it has no relevance whatsoever to current usage. In addition, Poole's analysis of current meanings is sometimes suspect.

He fulminates against the use of "antisocial" by new Labour, but this term has been misused for years. His supposedly correct example is someone at a party who refuses to speak and just glowers in a corner but, as someone who spent much of his shy teenage years doing exactly this, I beg to point out that the correct word is "unsociable". Being antisocial at a party is talking loudly without listening, or eating all the decent cheese or breaking wind in a confined space.

Elsewhere, Poole astonishingly approves of the term "insurgents" to label Iraqis who combat violently the Anglo-American occupation of their country.

This word obviously dehumanises people, especially when it is routinely contrasted with "the Iraqi armed forces" (while the insurgents are never "Iraqi"). So this is a good book up to a point, but leaves some important things unsaid.

Raphael Salkie is professor of language studies, Brighton University.


Author - Steven Poole
Publisher - Little, Brown
Pages - 282
Price - £9.99
ISBN - 0 316 73100 5

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