Sunday, 25 January 2009

Words, weasel-words and damned economics

I like words. No, I love them. I love what they do, and the way, in the hands of a skilled practitioner, they can bring ideas to life, give them flesh and texture, colour and movement. I doublepluslove the fact that they can make you feel – make you laugh or cry, soothe or incense you, and make you think.

I love thinking about and playing with words, manipulating them and making them up.

It's probably why George Orwell's fictional concept of Newspeak fascinates me. Newspeak is the antithesis of everything I love about the English language – its colourful imprecision and nuance, its enormous mongrel vocabulary and the apparent vagaries of its rules. Newspeak would do away with all that, and supposedly narrow the range of human thought, to make the possibility of rebellious thoughts - well, impossible. Take away the word for a concept, and the concept itself becomes unthinkable. That's the theory.

I have enough faith in the human spirit and intellect to believe that Newspeak wouldn't work. The evolution of language – especially abstract language – isn't anything like the chicken/egg conundrum. “In the beginning there was the Word” is pretty misleading – but it's the sort of nifty opening line most authors would kill for.

See, the word doesn't give birth to the concept. It's the concept that comes first – a vague unnamed feeling niggling away inside someone's soul, just waiting for the word to be invented that will fling it into the public domain, shrieking and howling its presence and adding a new shining thread to the tapestry of our linguistic existence. The word simply gives the concept a vehicle for common usage – ah, and therefore growth, I suppose, as more people learn the word. New words enter the language all the time to fill the tiny gaps that develop during our evolution as a culture.

Erk. This wasn't meant to be so serious! It's just that there's an expression I've heard a lot lately as this financial crisis tightens its grip on the world's economies, and more and more of them choke and slither into recession. It's cranked up the rusty cogs inside my middle-aged brain and got them cogitating!

The expression negative growth is surely an expression of monumental weasality[1] – I love it! An economy is officially in recession when it experiences two consecutive quarters (one half?) of negative growth.

Is that the same as shrinkage? If it's not growing it's either staying the same or shrinking, right? 'Negative' implies it's going in the opposite direction to growth, so yeah, I guess it means shrinkage. Well why the heck don't they say so? Why complicate things with this quirky, well-dressed little euphemism?

Because they can! Wheeeeeeeeee! It's all part of that rich linguistic tapestry I mentioned earlier. It's a doubleplusgood expression that looks and sounds so much cleverer than shrinkage (which, after all, is a term that Jerry Seinfeld used to great comic effect, describing what happens to blokes' bits in cold water. For a subject as serious as economics you need a serious expression!)

Our language experiences negative shrinkage every time an idea needs to be intellectualised or sanitised. Euphemisation is something that the most vegetabular [2] amongst us can do with great ease – and it's great fun! While many government-generated weasel-words ('collateral damage' comes to mind) leave a garbacious[3] taste on one's tongue, they are proof that human inventiveness and linguistic playfulness are alive and well – just don't be too sucked in by those weasel-words.

The English language continues to be a dynamic, unstoppable juggernaut. It's a beaut mode of communication, and sheer artistry at best. At worst it's a trap for the unwary – a sly means of intellectual and social control. But it's always fascinating.

Vive la lingo!

[1] sly manipulativeness
[2] cabbage-brained
[3] rotten, stinky, like garbage

1 comment:

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