I have the distinction to possess an embarrassing set of initials: WC. At least I used to think they were embarrassing. During my overly sensitive teen years, even citing Winston Churchill and WC Fields as fellow victims didn’t lessen the impact. But how embarrassing is it really? With adult hindsight, I can see that other initials would have been far worse: VD, for instance, or BO.
Even then, what exactly do the above sets of initials have in common? Only that they’re part of a social cringe: euphemism. As for WC, it’s hardly risqué, not even toilet
humour and barely registering a shadow on the wall of Plato’s cave. After all, what is a ‘water closet’? Just another in a long line of pursed-lip alternatives for an unmentionable device installed in a room designed for a biological purpose we don’t like to mention
in polite society. How terribly Victorian of us, or perhaps how Puritan.
It does make for the occasional laugh though, and the British aren’t above laughing at themselves: one of their most endearing and enduring traits. There’s a Two Ronnies sketch (viewable on YouTube) in which Ronnie-the-smaller urgently requires urinal relief but, being British, he can’t say this in as many words to his host (Ronnie-the-larger) at a cocktail party. Instead he keeps hinting with euphemism.
‘I’d like use the bathroom,’ says Ronnie Corbett.
‘Of course,’ says Ronnie Barker, ‘though it’s an odd time to take a bath.’
‘No, no. I don’t want a bath. I want to, you know, inspect the plumbing.’
‘But you’ll get all dirty.’
‘No, no, I… ah… I want to see the smallest room.’
‘Really? Well, that would be the youngest girl’s bedroom. But she’s asleep right now.’
‘No, no. I need to…’
Et cetera and excruciating et cetera, until at last Ronnie-the-smaller bursts out with a most indelicate expression:
‘I want to go to the lavatory…!’
To which the other Ronnie replies:
‘Oh, you want to sit on the doughnut in granny’s greenhouse. Why didn’t you say so?’
The phrase ‘water closet’ fits neatly into this category, along with its equally polite cousins ‘spend a penny’ and ‘loo’. Even the word ‘toilet’ is no more than an alternative expression of delicacy. Once upon a time, ‘toilet’ meant simply preparing one’s appearance, including bath, dressing and hair. Nowadays the word means just one thing, a neat euphemism that has itself become devalued and debased.
The euphemism-averse might say ‘Oh, for Gawd’s sake, just say what you mean’. In the US many people call the toilet a ‘john’. Down under we might say ‘dunny,’ if we want to be coarse, or even ‘bog’ if we lack all social graces. And what about the rest of the animal kingdom? ‘Oh, Tiddles has to do his business’. How terribly modest of the dear creature. But I wonder: if our pets could speak, would they sound so twee?
We’re equally euphemistic about other biological functions. ‘Women’s business,’ ‘time of the month’ and even ‘period’ are discreet references to menstruation, while ‘plumbing’
covers a multitude of medical conditions and functions too indelicate to mention. It’s a class thing. It’s a socio-economic thing. Even medical personnel go in for bodily euphemism—perhaps respecting their patients’ delicate sensibilities—talking of ‘regularity,’ ‘passing water’ and ‘motions’. Quaint, really. And code. Like most Latinate clinical terminology, such words exclude even as they describe.
So is it worth worrying about? There are hundreds of euphemisms out there, most of them harmless: from ‘adult entertainment’ and ‘bun in the oven’ to ‘making whoopee’. I’m only worried about the few harmful ones, e.g. ‘collateral damage,’ ‘friendly fire,’ ‘regime change,’ ‘alternative interrogation methods’ and ‘detention centre’. We know what they mean but the boffins at Bastards & Co keep inventing more of them, like computer viruses. We must remain alert but not alarmed.
Meanwhile, the British know best how to poke fun at private language codes, as evidenced by this Monty Python sketch:
Eric Idle: Top-hole. Bally Jerry, pranged his kite right in the how’s-your-father; hairy blighter, dicky-birded, feathered back on his sammy, took a waspy, flipped over on his Betty Harpers and caught his can in the Bertie.
Terry Jones: Er, I’m afraid I don’t quite follow you, Squadron Leader.
Euphemisms – they deserve a dig in the ribs now and then. ‘Scuse me. Nature calls. Have to go and visit the euphemism.
Hey, I’m a snob. I admit it.
I’m a book snob, preferring Don De Lillo to Dan Brown. I’m a coffee snob, preferring freshly brewed to instant. I’m a beer snob, unable to go back to mass-produced draughts now that my palate has been spoiled by micro-breweries. And I’m a TV snob, unable to watch Two-and-a-Half Laughs now that my comedic tastes have been spoiled by 30-Rock.
But am I a snob about spelling? Am I as fussed as I used to be if someone chooses American over British spelling conventions?
In Australia for decades we aped the British in everything but climate. Yet since the advent of computers, our attitudes to certain quirks of grammar and spelling have loosened up. As the default setting on all PCs has been set to North American, we’ve grown less fussy. Many colleagues of mine have relaxed their educational standards in this regard. Yet my inner snob still rears up when fellow citizens write ‘theater’ or ‘center’ and I’ll never be happy writing ‘esthetic,’ ‘fiber’ or ‘dialog’.
Or maybe I will. Spelling reform is evolutionary. Americans were dropping the ‘u’ from ‘color,’ ‘harbor’ and ‘labor’ well before Noah Webster came along and codified what we now regard as American English. Before that, the British had been doing it for centuries. The word ‘clerk’ used to be ‘clerke’. ‘Doctor’ was ‘doctour’. And our own language was often written as ‘Englysshe,’ until Master Caxton helped to standarise (or standardize) spelling by choosing between regional varieties. Print reigned over talk. Still does. But spelling refuses to ossify. We no longer write ‘governour’ or ‘musicke’. So does it matter whether I choose ‘ise’ over ‘ize’? If I use ‘judgment’ instead of ‘judgement’ the sky won’t fall in. We write for a global audience nowadays, so surely the occasional gray/ grey dichotomy or airplane/ aeroplane choice won’t create a crisis in international communications.
But here’s the risk: if I read ‘channeling’ or ‘amenic’ in the work of a compatriot, I may well regard his or her writing as incompletely revised, and that person’s credibility may suffer—if not in my eyes then in someone else’s. If I permit my computer to dictate US spelling conventions without double-checking the choices, I risk alienating readers not only in Great Britain and Ireland but also in India, home to the world’s largest English-speaking and English-publishing population. Expressions that jar the eye or cause a reader to recoil are an enemy to clear communication. When writers in the UK and former British colonies opt for American spellings like ‘maneuver’ or ‘aluminum’ their writing may appear to be incompletely revised, even lazy, which can undermine their message. And that’s the real worry. ‘Mold,’ ‘honor,’ ‘defense,’ ‘lackluster’ – fine in the USA but these are not for everyone. If that’s linguistic snobbery, I plead guilty.
Do they worry you? They sure bother me. Although there are linguistic differences between the different types of redundancy (such as tautology, double comparison and pleonasm), the essence of each is repetition, using different words: unnecessary replication, needless reiteration, saying the same thing—you get the idea. I hear them often in conversation or while sitting in committees: harmless enough. But when I see them recorded in official documents I get annoyed. Why does anyone need to use the term ‘forward planning’? Is this some special sort of planning that is different from—I don’t know—‘backward’ planning? And why describe someone as having a ‘temper tantrum’ when there are no other kinds? Have you ever experienced a cheerful tantrum, an absent-minded tantrum or an erotic tantrum?
Although we’re unlikely to hear absurdities such as ‘wet water’ or ‘hot heat,’ examples almost as ridiculous can be heard every day. Even worse, they appear in the written material of almost every public sphere. An ‘added bonus’ is surely no different from a bonus. ‘Advance warning’ can’t be anything but a warning. As for ‘explosive blast’ and ‘at this point in time,’ need I say more? Why use one word when you can use seven? ‘I myself personally believe’ must surely be greater than just belief. ‘Come to a complete stop’ must clearly be a stronger description than merely stopping. As for ‘completely exhausted,’ that obviously clears up any confusion with ‘exhausted,’ a mere absolute state. Yes, we have entered the twilight zone, a realm of infinite possibility where things can be ‘more perfect,’ ‘very unique’ or ‘quite dead’. Each one of these needs a qualifier like the noun ‘history’ needs the adjective ‘past’. Am I rightly correct?
Is it worth worrying about? Perhaps only linguistic sado-masochists like me enjoy pointing out such excesses to the more pompous of offenders. Is it necessary to say ‘arrive on the scene’ when a simple ‘arrive’ would do? And why say ‘protracted drawn-out discussion’ when the word ‘protracted’ already means ‘drawn-out’? Here are a few committee room repeat repetitions I’ve collected of late: basic fundamentals (fundamentals), close proximity (proximity), until such time as (until), general consensus (consensus), consensus of opinion (consensus), continue to remain (remain), disregard altogether (disregard), end product (product), end result (result), join together (join), final end (end), in view of the fact that (because), due to the fact that (because), for the very good reason that (because), for the purpose of (for), usual custom (custom), during the course of (during), unexpected surprise (surprise), purple in colour (purple), postponed until later (postponed).
When I read of someone setting a new record, I want to point out that every record is new; otherwise it’s not a record. When I hear people say they will repeat it again, I want to say (echoing Major-General Stanley in The Pirates of Penzance) that they haven’t repeated it yet, only said it once. I can forgive everyday redundancies like ATM machine (Automatic Teller Machine), PIN number (Personal Identification Number) and HIV virus (Human Immune-deficiency Virus) but I can’t forgive nonsense like ‘cooperate together’ or ‘few in number’.
Redundancy and tautology may be harmless enough if we’re just having a chat. We all know that ‘safe haven’ is the same as ‘haven’ and ‘gather together’ is the same as ‘gather’: and to be fair, there may be nuances of meaning we want to emphasise. But when I hear anyone say ‘it’s the honest truth’ I have to wonder whether they know of some other kind of truth. And when I hear ‘foreign imports,’ the phrase sounds as absurd as ‘temporary respite’ or ‘revert back’. More devious and despicable is the tautological bribe ‘free gift,’ which makes no sense—if you have to pay, it’s hardly a gift—except perhaps commercial sense. As for ‘true facts,’ those are obviously preferable to untrue facts. Ouch. ‘Fact, fact, fact,’ said that odious pedagogue Mr Gradgrind at the beginning of Hard Times. And more than a century later, Dan Brown tried the same thing, without a whisper of irony this time, in his preamble to The Da Vinci Code. ‘Fact’ must be one of the most abused words in English. If a thing can’t be proved mathematically is it really a fact or is it just a matter of expert opinion, like so many historical facts?). ‘True facts’ aren’t so much redundancy as an alarm bell. ‘You can’t argue with facts’. Really? I think we should, especially to challenge a fact’s claim to factuality.
On this topic, I’m willing to rage against the dying of the light. Whether I hear tautologies like ‘merged together’ (merged), ‘until such time as’ (until), ‘one and the same’ (the same), ‘relic of the past’ (relic), ‘appreciate in value’ (appreciate) or ‘universal panacea (panacea), I will continue to grumble (grumble unhappily) and no doubt reach for a red pen (red in colour).
So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodnight.
‘Climate change sceptic’: let’s examine that phrase. It used to sound like an attempt at neutrality; lately it rings hollow. As the planet has increasingly kicked up a fuss, evidence has mounted in favour of climate science to the point where such ‘scepticism’ is semantically equivalent to ostrich behaviour. After all, what scientist worth the name is not a sceptic? That’s no faith-based profession. Science has always been predicated on evidence gathering: truth seekers, not truth preachers. Among such professional sceptics there is now near unanimity. According to a new book published last month, Climate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand, the handful of scientific recalcitrants that make up the so-called ‘professional sceptics’ are guilty of citing cherry-picked statistics and out-of-context quotes. So the phrase, thus used, begins to resemble a euphemism for people not willing to admit that their emperor has no clothes.
Language manipulation isn’t limited to the one end of the political spectrum. Whoever named ‘Friends of the Earth’ must have known that this phrase would imply its opponents were unfriendly towards the Earth: rather begging the question, and not a little disingenuous—just as ‘friendly fire’ hasn’t convinced anyone that this phenomenon is other than tragic incompetence and ‘regime change’ remains a poor disguise for ‘invasion’. More successfully ‘mutual obligation’ and ‘welfare reform’ have provided governments of the developed world—from both the left and right—with sufficient cover to hit their most marginalised citizens with harsh penalties for non-compliance. It’s language as camouflage.
These last two decades have been a politicians’ linguistic playground for the allegedly liberal democracy down under, with both major parties manipulating language for their own ends. Let me count the ways.
Firstly, a left-of-centre government told voters that by 1990 no Australian child would be living in poverty. Then there was the recession the country had to have. Then citizens had to be alert, not alarmed. Then pundits began to talk of the political ‘mainstream,’ a word that could shift meaning according to any politician’s needs, implying everything from ‘the majority’ to ‘everyone who agrees with me’. Equally pernicious and devilishly clever was that phrase ’the silent majority,’ which implied that anyone speaking out was an exception and therefore a dissenter. What a brilliant piece of Catch-22 logic: once an objector’s mouth was open, it no longer belonged to the silent majority. Later, public discourse degenerated further with a new sneer phrase: ‘cultural elites’. This little barb was code disparagement not of the monied and the powerful but of social policy critics, specifically the left-leaning variety. Another favourite term of enfearment from the right was a waspish snicker: ‘the chattering classes,’ as if there was something frivolous and subversive about democratic debate. It went hand in hand with ‘practical reconciliation’ and ‘compassionate conservatism,’ a licence to tick off items on reactionary To Do lists; such as winding back public spending on frivolities such as welfare entitlements, programs for indigenous peoples and foreign aid.
Manipulative phrases aren’t limited to elected representatives. Such talk inhabits our talkback airwaves, often in the slipstream of party leaders. ‘Dole bludger’ is an old favourite Australian term of derision, aimed at the chronically unemployed, a group that often includes people struggling to remain in regular work due to health problems. More recently, tabloid talkers have been bandying about the term ‘queue jumper,’ implying that some refugees have found a way to sneak under a British style rope-line, despite the fact that certain countries do not recognise human rights and there isn’t a queue for anyone to stand in. Nastiest of all these sneers is the term ‘illegals,’ often used by people informed enough to know that it is entirely legal under international law to seek asylum.
Language manipulation is a blunt instrument, too often wielded as a result of focus groups and data sampling. People aren’t just demographics. Every person is infinitely more complex than an ideologue from central casting. I’m not just referring to crossover voters from blue or white collar allegiance. I’m talking about individuals who are as inimical to asylum seekers as they are to Islamic fundamentalism, and yet these same folk will open their arms, their wallets and their church doors to Christian refugees from Sudan and Burma. Forget simplistic labels like ‘left’ and ‘right’ and ‘centre’. There are so-called conservative voters in rural areas who are evangelists for reforestation and water conservation, but no one would label them ‘greenies’. The language of political manipulation and wedge gamesmanship does the electorate no favours. We’re not just consumers to be market-tested and shadow bought. Is it any wonder many of us feel patronised? Is it any wonder that so many people can’t make up their minds between the lesser of political evils on polling day? Numbed by yet more empty threats in the guise of policy announcements, voters in the sunburnt land are increasingly non-committed and non-committal, reflecting the tenor of our public discourse.
The best example of this uncertainty and confusion has slipped into everyday chat almost unnoticed. ‘Yeah, no, I don’t know’ has become such a widely heard conversational filler, replacing ‘um’ and ‘I mean,’ that it passes unnoticed by many who use it or hear it from others. Like the non-accountable language of our politicians, it has no meaning, though it may mean everything from ‘I hear you but I disagree with you’ or ‘I’m unsure’ to ‘I have no idea’ or ‘Let’s talk about something else’.
Well, I’m alert and alarmed. English is the poorer for these trends. I reject the manipulative premise of terms like ‘mainstream,’ ‘the silent majority’ and ‘climate change scepticism’. I’m mad as hell and I don’t have to take it any more. We deserve better from the language of Orwell, Lincoln, Churchill, Twain and Don Watson.