Robert Fisk’s World: Tanks roll and guns fall silent, but the clichés go on for ever

Catholics are always ‘devout’, Protestants in Northern Ireland inevitably ‘staunch’
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Clichés are poison. They seep into our language like defoliants, pesticides that reside in our imagination, slowly destroying our power to express ourselves by dehumanising language, by industrialising speech. Newspaper and television reporting are to blame. We are all guilty. So why do we insult you, reader? And why do you put up with this?

Some of this claptrap has been around for years. Catholics are always "devout", Protestants (the Northern Ireland version, at least) inevitably "staunch". Bitterly hostile antagonists are always "foes" or "arch-foes". New dictatorial laws – the new press laws in Iran, for example – are always "draconian" (poor old Draco), while secret policemen (the Gestapo, the Shah's Savak, the Afghan Khad, the Syrian mukhabarat, the present-day Iranian Etelaat) are always "dreaded". Needless to say, the Israeli secret police – who also torture and murder – tend to be "elite" or (my favourite) "second to none". The point about all these words, of course, is that we do not use them in conversation. We never ask a Catholic if they are "devout" or describe a vexatious next-door neighbour as an "arch-foe". If we are discussing the Syrian secret service, nobody says: "Yes, they're fairly dreaded, aren't they?" We just don't talk like that.

Alas, we have been given a new set of tranquillisers to use on our fellow human beings. Unable to ask our friends if they are religious – a gross infringement of our privacy, of course – we ask them if they are "faith-based". "NO, BY CHRIST!" is my reply.

Our relationship with our neighbour may now contain a lot of "negativity" or "negative energy". If we get on well with our neighbours – or business partners or family – then there's a lot of "synergy" in the air.

I notice that most Muslims are now described by us reporters as "practising", though I'm still not sure what that means. That the men go to the mosque five times a day? Or say their five daily prayers at home? That their wives wear hijab? Or, mini-skirted, just believe in God? Or are they preparing to be suicide bombers? Note how we never refer to "practising" Christians – probably because there aren't many left. Christians, I mean. No, a "practising" Muslim is also a code word for "terrorist" – just as the accusation of being "pro-Palestinian" means that the accused is actually a supporter of terrorism. Likewise "pro-Israeli" has become a synonym for "Zionist" or "anti-Arab".

The same goes for less sinful clichés. In real life, do we really call borders "porous" – even when, like the Durand line which divides Afghanistan from present-day Pakistan, few of the people living on the frontier believe it's real? In ordinary conversation, do ever refer to "iconic" or "defining moments", even though speech-writers like to sprinkle them around the lexicon of third-rate politicians? Indeed, politics provides some of our most woeful clichés. Presidents and prime ministers like to demonstrate "soft power" – a descendant of the old "hitting above our weight" – when they are not on the "campaign trail". I have a special "AAAAAGH" for "campaign trail". It was presumably coined in the United States (the "trail" being a giveaway) but it now applies to any election anywhere on earth. MPs or US senators or French presidents are always "fighting for their political life", their arguments often "compelling". Which means what, exactly? Every newly inaugurated American president since Truman, it appears, has "hit the ground running".

Last week, in a self-regarding address which I had the misfortune to attend, our dear Lord Chancellor and Justice Minister, Jack Straw, invented an entirely new word: "justicability". His audience of Australian lawyers was as bemused as I was by such claptrap. Is the political descendant of Sir Thomas More – he of Utopia and a head loss to Henry VIII – trying to persuade us he's an intellectual?

Sometimes, clichés turn into real speech. How many times have we heard UN officials, business leaders and US generals – always keeping an "anxious eye" on "seemingly intractable" problems – tell us that "time is of the essence"? When Middle East leaders – either "hawks" or "doves" or "moderates" or "conservatives" – speak, their words often escape "under the radar" of us Westerners.

I won't go into "war-torn" – yes, Afghanistan, it's pretty war-torn right now, isn't it, we might say to a friend – or "embattled", but some clichés are like glue. Not long ago, I wanted to write about a South-west Asian country that was so shattered by war and corruption that it was no longer economically viable. I knew the old cliché: "poverty-stricken". But I wanted to express myself clearer, so I wrote that the country was – quite literally – "poverty-broken". But of course, a sub-editor changed it back to "poverty-stricken". He wanted to keep within the cliché code. Poverty-broken was offensive because it did not fit into the dictionary of clichés, that essential volume – it is in our brains, not in our libraries – that is supposed to safeguard all journalism from unorthodoxy.

I love new clichés, however, albeit for only a few days. One of Italian prime minister Berlusconi's latest women is now described by journalists, I notice, as a "high-end prostitute". Who dreamed up 'high-end'? Her pimp, I suspect. It means, presumably, that she's very expensive and thus available only to men with money and power. And be sure that we shall never – ever – refer to "low-end prostitutes", a phrase that would dehumanise "sex workers". But wait – the cliché has already begun to sink into our subconscious. A reader of Canada's National Post, writing a letter to the editor, last week described the newspaper as a "high-end publication" – which, I suppose, tells you a lot about the paper.

So do we just sit back and roll about in this shitty language? After all, it's not "rocket science", is it? Tanks may "roll" but the guns will always "fall silent". Now back to Canada for a moment. In New Brunswick, it seems, parents are not amused with the new French "immersion" course offered their children in local schools. Apparently, they are not actually taught the French language any more, merely told about France while, occasionally, an anglophone teacher drops by the classroom to sing a French song to the kids. "Experiential modules" is what their teachers call these courses. Modules indeed.

Justicability I suppose. And as his Liege Lord Henry would have said of Jack Straw and his friends: "Off with their heads."

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