The language of politics today seems to be all hat and no trousers, with politicians muttering about ‘inclusive diversity culture’ and the ‘values vacuum’, or holding forth on ‘sustainable development’, ‘extraordinary rendition’ and ‘joined-up government’. From the smooth on-message spin of New Labour in its heyday to the sibylline malapropisms of Bush and Rumsfeld, we all agree politicians’ words mean less (and perhaps more) than they seem to. Politicians are liars, circumlocutors or blathering fools, and worthy candidates for little more than ‘bad English’ awards.
Dare we ask, then: what’s wrong with political jargon? Are new-fangled buzzwords necessarily about obfuscation, or do they simply reflect the fast-changing character of contemporary politics? Do politicians use managerial terminology to pull the wool over our eyes, or does obscure language simply reflect the growing distance between the political class and the public? The emergence of Barack Obama in the US has led to suggestions that inspiring political rhetoric is making a comeback. Is this to be welcomed, or are silky speeches just another species of spin? Shouldn’t we judge politicians more by what they do than what they say they think they mean?
professor of contemporary literature and thought, Royal Holloway, University of London; author, The Holocaust and the Postmodern
associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; author, That Existential Leap: a crime story (forthcoming from Zero Books)
writer and commentator; composer; author, Unspeak.
convenor, The Academy; author, Being Cultured: in defence of discrimination
There is a yawning gulf between what the Democratic candidate says and how he has acted. That's why the race is so close.Gerard Baker, The Times, 12 September 2008
Is 'robust' the new 'clustering'? Hannah Fearn on an anthropologist spotting trends in vocabularyHannah Fearn, Times Higher Education, 28 August 2008
Council leaders and their staff have been urged to avoid using more than 100 "non-words" identified on a list of clichés and jargon.Andrew Sparrow, The Guardian, 20 June 2008
Steven Poole, Abacus, 1 February 2007
Norman Fairclough, Routledge, 6 March 2000
Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it.George Orwell, Horizon, 1 April 1946
"I was amazed by the high quality of the Battle of Ideas 2007 and the intellectual excitement that it provoked."
Prof Malcolm Grant CBE, president and provost, University College London