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macro follies“Officials in Berlin told The Telegraph it is “more likely than not” that investors will suffer fresh losses on holdings of Greek debt, beyond the 21pc haircut agreed in July…Finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble told the Frankfurter Allgemeine that the original haircuts were “probably” too low…”

“Haircuts” are nicey-nicey for huge losses. Banks invested rashly, assuming that rich European taxpayers would forever subsidise the losses of the indolent and corrupt Greeks, and now the careless banks and their middle-class investors and pension-fund shareholders are going to get it right where the moon don’t shine.

The fairness of bail-outs, or the opposite, upset me less than the abuse of language. Little Johnny thinks he’s going to Dan the Barber for his first “haircut,” but Daddy’s taking him to Madame Guillotine: “just a little off the top and sides, please, Madame LaFarge.”

Another example, “Quantitative Easing,” is redolent of the elaborate Ottoman phrase for the crapper, “the chamber of easement.” But Ben Bernanke can hardly say “we’re going to keep printing funny-money and running up inflation until we can pay off the cheaper debt, but your life-savings will look like a college sorority after a heavy date with Genghis Khan’s Mongol Horde.” QE is shorter and easier to remember. But it isn’t honest.

Britain’s Neo-Con Minister of Defence is accused of dragging his buddy (and former best man) around the world on freebies and into top meetings where the bloke lacked a security clearance (but may have business ties to defence contractors). British media and opposition figures have begun to accuse the politician of “telling porkies.” This means great, stinking lies but the UK chattering classes diminish the crime by reverting to the lexicon of the nursery (rhyming slang: porkies = pork pies = lies).

For two generations now, British newspapers have described leading politicians as looking “tired and emotional,” when they mean steaming drunk.

On both sides of the Atlantic, we have the term “fatherless children” to try to erase the stigma of illegitimacy. For awhile, there was a push to call the little bastards “love children,” as if the proper kind arrived in boxes of breakfast cereal, but that was just too silly to work.

Then the race-relations industry tries to rename black people every generation or so, even though black people never seem to request it (“What are we this week, darling?”).

At half a century old I missed any civilised person mentioning ‘niggers’ except people reading Huckleberry Finn aloud – by then it was ‘coloured people,’ then Afro-Americans, then black Americans, then People of Colour, then African-Americans, and of course now the rap-singers call themselves niggers. Go figure. Only the venerable National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People stuck with their name and said to hell with it, saving four or five times having to redesign their letterhead and print new business cards. Possibly too, the NAACP realises that talking nicey-nicey means much less than having a clear mind and a decent, hate-free heart.

49-war is peace posterDeploying saccharine euphemisms is far older than Orwell’s 1984: “War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength.” The 18th Century term for this was cant (both noun and verb) and seems to cover soppy thinking as well as sneaky speech: Dr. Johnson scolded Boswell, saying “don’t cant in defence of savages.”In the 19th Century we had “in the family way” for pregnant. In the 19th and 20th, “six feet under” or “passed away” for dead. On my visits to modern America my middle-class, Midwestern relatives have jettisoned the “away” part, so they sound like black church-going ladies in the Deep South. “Old Aunt Shirley,” says my well-educated brother, “she passed.” Passed what? An exam? Gas? Should I send chocolates to the university, flowers to the mortuary, or open a window? Afghans say “she’s dead.” It’s doubly confusing because my relatives are religious, hence not frightened of death, so there’s presumably less need to prevaricate.Western cultures start waffling apace when nature calls (see? I did it too. I mean urinate or defecate). I ask Pushtoons, ungrammatically no doubt, “tushnab, cherta?” and they point me to the convenience (did it again!). But I nearly blew a kidney in a Florida WalMart asking two “greeters” where I could find the facility (that’s three). “Where is the lavatory?” I asked to blank stares. “The loo?” Nada. “The bathroom?” Zip. Hydraulic pressure mounted so I rattled faster through the list. The WC? The washroom? The toilet? The porcelain reticule? The chamber of easement? The cludge? The biffy? The bog? The urinal? Le pissoir? The portal of micturition? Finally, legs crossed, I fairly shouted: “HELP! I NEED TO PEE!”

“Oh,” drawled one of them pointing at me as the other nodded her head clinically, “He needs the restroom.” Of course. But by then I almost didn’t need it any longer.

51-bullshitBut why does one get annoyed with euphemisms such as “haircuts” and “porkies” and not with so many others?Big Business produces abominable cant: downsizing or restructuring or career-change opportunities for fired; nor non-performing assets for bad debts. Or haircuts. “Dilbert” cartoonist Scott Adams earns a fortune mocking it. Big Government is a worse offender. Sometimes, language abuse is a form of bureaucratic self-preservation. In the UK sitcom “Yes, Minister,” the oleaginous bureaucrat Sir Humphrey warns his cabinet minister not to irritate the tobacco companies because he has been so often entertained by them:

“Notwithstanding the fact that the proposal could conceivably encompass certain concomitant benefits of a marginal and peripheral relevance, there is a consideration of infinitely superior magnitude involving your personal complicity and corroborative malfeasance, with the consequence that the taint and stigma of your former associations and diversions could irredeemably and irretrievably invalidate your position and culminate in public revelations and recriminations of a profoundly embarrassing and ultimately indefensible character.”

The minister asks for a summary and the civil servant concludes: “There’s nicotine on your hands.”

But I refer to a greater sin, when government uses neologisms to cloak the truth: from Western terms such as QE to Communist Beijing’s “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” meaning capitalism.

Within American Big Government, the military retires the cup. Enhanced Interrogation Techniques for torture by US Government employees; or Extraordinary Rendition for torture contracted out to 3rd World allies. Self-Injurious Behaviour Incidents when a US prisoner tries to kill himself. A Reinforced Protective Reaction Strike for an invasion. And ever onward toward Orwell’s dystopia..

It is hard to get annoyed with a blue-rinse lady who quails at mentioning a toilet. One just may not mind too much when teachers call themselves “learning experience facilitators” (or whatever), just as Art Carney, playing a sewer-worker in “The Honeymooners,” referred to himself as a “subterranean sanitation officer.” Well, actually I do mind, but not as much as when it comes steaming out of Big Government or Big Business, because they do it neither to protect sensibilities nor to inflate their own importance: they do it to deceive.

And in both qualitative and quantitative terms the river of sludge seems to flow ever faster.

This may be because everyone is more media-savvy and hence dishonest nowadays. Or, because government and corporations have grown so big that they have more opportunities to lie than before. Or because the two do so much more of what should make them ashamed.

But just as Bismark said if you like laws and sausages watch neither being made, if you care for language or truth disconnect your internet and sell your television. It’s going to get worse.

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4 replies to this post
  1. Great, great, great post! I love the last two grafs especially. I wonder how rude the truth is going to become, and how suppressed it will be too. I'm no longer surprised by the type of nonsense people are apt to believe in the name of rational discourse.

  2. A hoot-and-a-half, Steve. Every so often somebody comes along with the vocabulary and the sense of humor (as well as a good ear) to pull this off. It's certainly in the tradition of Dr. Johnson, Ambrose Bierce, and Chesterton. It's also an oblique answer to the ideologues who think that politics matters much. Politics destroys language, whereas a reclaimed word order can help reclaim a political order.

  3. John! You've done it! A movement to clout the NeoCons and evil-doers everywhere, and a play on GHW Bush. We demand a New Word Order!

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