The Language of Politics
Political Euphemisms, Abstractions, and Weasel Words
Political Issues Main Page
Note by James R. Martin
To paraphrase George Orwell, political language is often language that softens or veils the truth through euphemism or abstraction, and frequently serves as a defense of the indefensible. Consider the following quotes from Orwell's 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language.
"In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a "party line." Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestoes, White papers and the speeches of undersecretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, homemade turn of speech. When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases -- bestial, atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder -- one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker's spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity."
"In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism., question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness."
"Political language -- and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists -- is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."
According to Peter Clark in a recent opinion piece in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Today, the debate is framed by simple phases, repeated so often to stay 'on message' that they turn into slogans, another substitute for critical thinking."1
Perhaps most political language should be labeled political propaganda, or political weasel words because it is mainly designed to influence our opinions without providing any legitimate support for the view it conveys. The following is an ongoing list of such language. I plan to add to this list in the future, so if you have suggestions for additional terms (or disagree with some of the terms on the list), please send an e-mail message to email@example.com.
A Collection of Political and Economic Weasel Words2
|Political Viewpoint||Liberal vs. Conservative, Left vs. Right|
|Political Viewpoint||Authoritarian vs. Libertarian, Collectivism vs. Individualism|
|Political Viewpoint||Fiscal Restraint vs. Social Justice|
|Political Viewpoint||Tax and Spend vs. Social Welfare|
|Political Viewpoint||Welfare State vs. The New Deal|
|War between the States||Civil War vs. War of Rebellion vs. War of Secession|
|Any War||Prisoner of War vs. Enemy Combatant|
|Any War||Invasion vs. Incursion vs. Police Action|
|Iraq War||Civil War vs. Sectarian Violence|
|Iraq War||Jihadist vs. Terrorist vs. Muslim Fanatic vs. Iraqi Insurgent|
|Iraq War||Terrorist vs. Freedom Fighter|
|Iraq War||Phased Withdrawal vs. Cut and Run|
|Iraq War||Phased Withdrawal vs. Stay the Course|
|Iraq War||War on Terror vs. War in Iraq|
|The Death of Innocent Civilians in Any War||Collateral Damage|
|Abortion vs. Antiabortion||Pro-Choice vs. Pro-Life|
|The Immigration Problem||Illegal alien vs. Illegal Immigrant vs. Undocumented Worker|
|Disaster Victims||Refugee vs. Evacuee|
|Estate Tax||Death Tax vs. Wealth Tax|
|Government Aid to Businesses||Corporate Welfare vs. Jobs and Growth|
1 Clark, R. P. 2006. Journalists can easily trip in minefield of war words. Atlanta Journal-Constitution. (December, 16).
2 My apology to the weasel.
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