Unspeak by Steven Poole
A long time ago in China, a philosopher was asked the first thing he would do if he became ruler. The philosopher thought for a while, and then said: well, if something had to be put first, I would rectify the names for things.
This is a book all about language, and how the terms and titles used by politicians and the media are carefully thought out for maximum impact. And the use and abuse of language makes for a very interesting read. But in the end I thought that this book just didn’t know quite what tone it was trying to get across. At certain times it was very serious, at others a strange sort of humour pervaded, and they didn’t really sit all that well together.
Ingenious: not only do I deny what you have told me, but I will deny everything that you could tell me in future.
And I also have to disagree with some of the issues he has with certain words and phrases. Ethnic cleansing, for example. To me this is a term that describes an horrendous action, the removal of people from a certain land by murder, violence and forced evacuations. It has no connotations of being okay, or morally justifiable, and so to label use of the term as “verbal collaboration in mass murder” is a huge negative.
But there are also a lot of positive points. Poole highlights how language can be twisted and used so that the listener is either forced to agree, or to take the opposite line. How it can create the illusion of two opposing sides with nothing in the middle.
There seems to be a natural instinct to imagine that where there is a wrong, there must be a right to balance it. Thus, if we condemn one act, we might feel inclined to praise another that constitutes a kind of counterweight in some global-historical moral scale. In reality there can often just be wrong as far as the eye can see.
Language is a powerful tool, and this book treats it as so, however it isn’t quite as good as it wants to be.