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.
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.
Unspeak usually flows from the lips of politicians, but news organizations are equally inventive. Poole quotes a Fox News Channel executive who instructed reporters to refer to U.S. “sharpshooters” in Iraq instead of U.S. “snipers,” because snipers was negative. The same Fox News sought to substitute “homicide bombers” for “suicide bombers” because “suicide” gave too much prominence to the attacker.
Poole asks how the war on terror can exist when it’s almost impossible to wage war on a technique; he recoils at the euphemism of detainee abuse, which minimizes physical and psychological violence; and punctures those who dress their acts in the cloths of democracy, freedom, and liberty.
Other suspect phrases and words that Poole takes his cane to: intelligent design. Sound science. Security fence. Regime change. Extremism. Moderate. Coalition forces.
Unlike George Lakoff, who lectures the Democratic Party about the importance of “framing” political debates in order to win them, Poole dismisses this tactic as fighting unspeak with unspeak, as the “pro-choice” and “pro-life” schools demonstrate. Quoting linguist Ranko Bugarski, Poole maintains that what’s needed is “judicious use of normal language, allowing for fine-grained selection and discrimination, for urbanity and finesse,” even though “normal language” is already subject to unending political debate.
As the channel through which politicians, activists, and corporations market their words, reporters are usually the first recipients of new examples of unspeak. Monitoring how they say what they say is as important as reporting precisely what they say. As Poole notes, resisting unspeak isn’t quibbling about semantics. It’s attacking the “chain of reasoning at its base.” Making sense of nonsense is 90 percent of what being a journalist is about. To forewarn readers about unspeak, Poole advises, is to forearm them.
As I read Poole’s book, a couple of examples of unspeak came to me: Accept responsibility. Gridlock. Loopholes. Islamofacism. Send your favorite original examples to firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll publish the best of them and credit the senders.
Addendum, Jan. 23: No more submissions, please. See the Tuesday “Press Box” column for the readers’ unspeak nominations.
(E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)