Unspeak by Steven Poole

Give Mary Wollstonecraft an Asbo
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The Independent Culture

Apparently, some governments, corporations and pressure groups try to avoid saying exactly what they mean. They use language selected for its favourable connotations and make determined efforts to ensure that their chosen terms are widely adopted. It's a kind of lying, and lots of people are at it.

This is hardly a new insight, but Steven Poole, a literary critic by trade, has done us a valuable service by gathering together these euphemisms and deceptions and exploring them in detail. Some, though, will question whether he needed to coin a neologism for the phenomenon. Propaganda would seem to do the job.

Still, Poole's introductory discussion of "unspeak" does usefully describe what's going on. "A whole partisan argument is packaged into a soundbite," he says. "Unspeak: is "an attempt to say something without saying it, without getting into an argument and so having to justify itself". His first examples are "pro-choice", "tax relief" and "Friends of the Earth". In two of those cases, he boldly attacks those on the political left, although that proves to be something of a feint. Most of the book delivers a thoroughgoing drubbing to the likes of Bush and Blair.

He starts with "anti-social behaviour", a sinister concept that allows our illiberal government to prohibit actions without the tedious necessity of defining them - and prosecuting them - as crimes. Skilfully skewering the unwillingness of politicians to define this usefully vague concept, he moves on to list the absurdities of its practical application. This proves to be a regular feature of his method, which begins as a kind of Leavisite close reading and moves on to more wide-ranging social criticism.

Those who regularly find themselves frothing at the mouth over some self-serving Whitehall circumlocution will find plenty of ammunition here: the ready recourse to the word "community"; the bald statement, unquestioned by commentators, that every attack on existing institutions is a "reform".

These things are relatively petty, however. The real meat of the book examines more urgent matters. For instance, Poole gives us a masterful dissection of the Bush government's cynical manipulation of the terms used to discuss environmental issues. Many will have felt a vague unease over the substitution of the neutral "climate change" for the alarming "global warming", but few will have appreciated the extent to which that was part of a careful policy. Poole's impeccably footnoted research reveals that the White House has fostered the impression that there is a lively debate over global warming - there is none - while fostering the big corporations' "sound science" to distract attention from the disturbing findings of real science. In the same way he notes the way business has sprayed the comforting words "natural", "wholesome" and "tradition" over all manner of technological innovation.

In matters of war and terrorism, he proves a close and critical listener. The Metropolitan Police's mealy-mouthed response to the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes provokes a meditation on the use of the word "tragedy" as a way of deflecting blame. His account of the whole complex of language associated with the "war on terror" and the "defence of freedom" is lengthy, but meticulous and convincing.

Sometimes he goes too far. Tony Blair's preference for "I believe", rather than "I think", may be no more than a verbal tic rather than, as Poole suggests, an attempt to cloak himself in "an armour of faith". It's a pity, too, that the author's frustration and impatience can lead him into the crass and the merely rhetorical.

It is just silly to say that if there had been Asbos in the 18th century, Mary Wollstonecraft would have received one for attempting suicide by jumping off Putney Bridge. It won't do to sum up a discussion of the White House's environmental policies by saying that "perhaps" Bush's answer to the problem is "Fuck the environment". What's more, it is pure hyperbole to say that anyone using the expression "ethnic cleansing" was guilty of "verbal collaboration in mass murder": most of those who used it were well aware of its status as a grisly euphemism, choosing it to highlight the evil intentions of its originators.

These are flaws, but they don't devalue the book's central purpose, which is to remind us to unpack the terms in which public debate is framed. There is a particular lesson here for journalists, many of whom seem to have lost the ability to take hold of a story and tell it in their own words.