Press Box

Unspeak From the Readers

They find it everywhere.

At the bottom of Monday’s column, I invited Slate readers to submit the best examples of unspeak they’ve encountered and promised to publish the best of the lot. If you didn’t read the column and have no intention of doing so, let me bring you up to speed.

Unspeak is Steven Poole’s wicked term for words or phrases that attempt to smuggle a political argument into conversations. Poole’s classic unspeak examples are the phrases pro-life and pro-choice. If a journalist describes an anti-abortion figure as pro-life, he creates a semantic space in which all the pro-lifer’s opponents are necessarily anti-life. If he describes a pro-abortion figure as pro-choice, he similarly reduces the debate to a stick-figure battle between those who make decisions for themselves and those who want to boss others around.

Poole has collected scores of examples and amplified them in his recent book, Unspeak: How Words Become Weapons, How Weapons Become a Message, and How That Message Becomes Reality, which should be required reading for reporters and editors everywhere. Other examples of unspeak: community, reform, smart weapons, intelligent design, and collateral damage. (Want to know why they qualify as unspeak? Read Poole’s book, or better yet read my piece from yesterday.)

At this writing, about 260 readers (and counting) have taken the unspeak challenge and submitted their nominations. Many thanks to all who participated, and if you don’t see your name below, it’s because I ran out of time and energy, and not necessarily because your nomination didn’t pass muster.

Even author Poole wrote in, informing me that Islamofascism, which I nominated for unspeak status in my column, had made the postscript of the paperback edition of his book, due at bookstores in April. I asked for a sample of the postscript, and Poole obliged with this:

Islamic fascism suggested that fascism was somehow inherent to Islam, just as with the associated notion of Islamic terrorism. (Few spoke of Christian terrorism when the perpetrators were Christians.) Third, and most excitingly, Islamic fascism allowed the use of dramatic historical analogies. In one speech, [President George W.] Bush inventively compared “the terrorists” to some other “evil and ambitious men,” namely Lenin and Hitler, taking care to remind his audience of the trouble those two had caused. … [Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld] … prowled the stage muttering darkly about the ‘vicious extremists’ who constituted “the rising threat of a new type of fascism.”At least the phrase “a new type of fascism” was subtler than his boss’s Islamic fascism. The rider “a new type of,” it seemed, was designed to acknowledge the obvious fact that what was under consideration was not “fascism” as hitherto understood, while allowing oneself to say the scary word “fascism” anyway. It was ridiculous to think, Rumsfeld said, that these fascists could be “appeased,” even though no one was actually recommending such a historically disreputable course of action. (It did not take long for some commentators to suggest that the celebrated photograph of a beaming Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam Hussein in 1983 evoked “appeasement” more than anything that serious critics of the “war on terror” were suggesting.)

Criminal defense lawyer Elizabeth Simpson writes in to note the unspeakery of public grousing about defendants getting off on a technicality. “Many times, this ‘technicality’ is the U.S. Constitution. Prosecutors charge people on technicalities all the time, but this word would never be used to describe their tactics.”

Dennis Harrington finds both affirmative action and equal opportunity as code phrases for discrimination and “we’ll take anyone, however useless, as long as they have our preferred gender or skin color,” respectively. Rick Kaempfer, Nick Stern, and John Bisges offer surge. Writes Bisges:

Rather than “troop increase,” which implies an open-ended commitment of more troops to a failing war, a “surge” goes along with the idea of a power surge—a brief burst of energy that overwhelms a circuit’s resistance. Using it in the context of the Iraqi conflict makes it much more palatable: everyone is against a troop “increase,” but a troop “surge” invokes the idea that this is a very temporary burst of soldiers that will quickly overwhelm the insurgency. Perfect because the administration reaps the benefits of the phrase while bearing no responsibility for its misleading characterization of troop redeployment; after all, it’s just a word.

Not everybody played the nomination game as directed. In his e-mail, Jay Heinrichs claims that “Poole’s book title employs the same device he denounces:  Using our belief in unfettered speech, he applies a shocking label to the practice of labeling,” adding that Aristotle called what Poole calls unspeak a “commonplace,” the philosopher’s “term or phrase based on the audience’s own beliefs, values and naked self-interest.”

Paul W. Westermeyer diagnoses anti-war as unspeak because it declares “that everyone else is ‘pro-war,’ implying no distinction between supporting a war of defense and a war of aggression.” Progressive also deserves our attention, he writes, because it “implies improvement.”

“The term not incorrect is almost always favored over ‘correct’ because it, while acknowledging undisputed facts, still casts doubt on whatever the opposition is trying to get across, and implies that the fact is a technicality,” writes Robin Snyder.

Terrorist surveillance program is “the preferred term of the Bush administration towards their illegal, warrantless, unsupervised spying of American citizens. It was also the phrase used by Fox News, right wing pundits, and right wing blogs,” writes Joshua Fletcher, calling it a “safe, innocent, sanitized phrase which implied no wrongdoing.”

Linda McIntyre recalls an article from long ago in the New Republic “about the Children’s Defense Fund,” which casts “those not in agreement with CDF’s policy prescriptions as anti-child, a strategy that worked well for the group in terms of politics and fundraising.”

Mass casualty event really describes mass slaughter, writes Michael Billips. “Heritage has become a code word for race,” writes Jeremy Voas. “Since the ‘80’s being against deficits means being for something that cannot be said: taxes,” offers Robert Cunningham. Joe Keohane and Tom Stephens find unspeak in the vague phrase support the troops, Ashley Masset nominates smart growth, and Alec Mcausland wants to know where the eggheads get off calling themselves the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Interrogation techniques sanitizes torture, writes Donald DiPaula, and anything that contains the word agenda(homosexual agenda, left-wing agenda, and right-wing agenda) qualifies because it implies the homosexuals, lefties, and righties are “homogenous and in complete internal agreement.” Similarly, about a dozen readers drew their unspeak revolvers whenever encountering the word family anywhere near values, oriented, pro-,or -friendly. Beth Prather brings up the rear with one of my hobbyhorses, the war on drugs, and Carol Kania with the cringe-making stakeholders.

Many readers nominated such unspeak as unlawful combatants and climate change, which are analyzed in Poole’s book. To my great disappointment, nobody finds the phrase net neutrality an example of unspeakableness. Can I get a second out there?

Finally, Keith Benoit suggests that readers listen to the State of the Union address tonight and e-mail me examples of Bush’s unspeak. Excellent idea. If you have the stomach to listen, send your examples to and I’ll post the best of the lot.


(E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)