Unspeak by

22 June 2006

Call no:
Rated :

ISBN: 0316731005

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.

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26 Responses

  1. Mal says:

    It was Confucius what said your opening quotation. As opposed to all those other Chinese philosophers like…em…Mao Tze Tung.

    Then again, trying to control language is impossible. I was slapped on the wrist by an access librarian for using the term disabled entrance; it's not a disabled entrance, it's an entrance for disabled people, she said. I get her point, and it's not that I think we shouldn't be sensitive in the terms we use, but there's a danger of getting into a circumlocutory frenzy. Pejorative connotations will attach themselves to certain terms, and you can't constantly be discarding them for new ones.

    She said the entrance wasn't disabled. It was only later I thought: we say a gay bar, but the bar's not gay, is it? I'm always thinking of these things too late…

  2. Fence says:

    I would have thought her argument would be that disabled isn't the PC term of choice anymore, it is special needs or differently abled, isn't it?

    Most of the book is about how terms are introduced, rather than misused. So for example we say ethnic cleansing rather than mass murder.

    Or even how we constantly frame our debates as two opposing sides, which I think is very true, and that these sides are natural opponents, but also the only real options. This is something I noticed when reading whatshisface Moore, there is no middle ground, you either agree with every point or you are against him.

  3. Mal says:

    Yes, that's a very insidious and frustrating phenomenon. Like today I was trying to explain to someone that I believe in tradition and ceremony, and I like the idea of an aristocracy and a monarchy, but I still consider myself a socialist, and see no contradiction there…people just can't accept it.

    Or when I tell people that I don't like art-house films because I think they are NOT clever or subtle or artistic, people still think I'm simply admitting to middlebrow tastes.

    I also hate a lot of the terms creeping in…like "moving forward". As C.S. Lewis said, everybody travels into the future at the rate of sixty seconds per minute, no matter what they're doing. And words like "survivor"…ugh. A survivor used to be somebody who lived through Auschwitz. Now it's somebody who falls down the stairs and sprain their ankle. Well, maybe not that bad, but almost.

  4. Fence says:

    I'm anti-monarchy. It is pointless and silly. Course, so is a lot of socialism…

  5. Mal says:

    I don't think it's pointless at all, but its point is not immediately obvious. I think it's good to have an institution that's above politics, that represents the community as a whole and the continuity of the nation over time. A constitutional monarch, of course. And it's good to have an aristocracy, a leisured and cultured class that are not at the mercy of the market-place and the latest trendy beliefs and values. You are always going to have an elite class and I think an aristocracy is better than a plutocracy, or even a meritocracy, or– God help us– films stars and rock stars. They are much less likely to be crass and vulgar, and more likely to set an example of elegance and refinement and noblesse oblige. I believe in Edmund Burke's community of the dead, the living and the unborn. Also they give old ladies something to read about in the glossy magazines.

    As for socialism…no, I'm too tired right now…

  6. Fence says:

    So, what is the point?

    And as for the aristocracy? Its just shite, and there is no reasonable argument I can see for any one thinking that simply because your parents were "noble."

    Sure other version of an elite may not be perfect, but at least they give a slight change of outsiders gaining entrance.

    Course originally the nobility was a meritocracy; you earned it through killing people on the battlefield.

  7. Mal says:

    People always say that, but I don't see how it matters. The point isn't how something originated, especially something reaching so far back. Most countries began by the current populations ancestors conquering the

    previous population thousands of years ago. The point is what it becomes.

    The whole point of an aristocracy is that it's more or less closed. It's a kind of cultural memory bank, something enduring and stable amidst the constant flux of society. It represents the community as a whole. And I think the example of respect and deference is a good one, even if the aristocrat is a drunken idiot. It's their position you are respecting, not their persons. Plus, it injects style and class and refinement into a nation, even to the tiny things like having a royal charter printed on sauce bottles. A republic is inexpressively vulgar, an aggregate of individuals rather than a nation. It's boringly rational, and discards tradition and heritage.

    I don't think the aristocracy should have political power; they should devote themselves to being a cultured and intellectual class, which will ripple downwards, as well as creating things of beauty for the entire nation; stately homes and such. Of course some will become wasters and drunkards, but that's inevitable. Aristocracies produce Prince Philips as well as Bertrand Russells. And aristocracies produce thinkers who, as I say, are detached from the political, cultural and other cliques of the day, and have a platform and freedom to express those thoughts, to the benefit of all.

  8. Fence says:

    How on earth can a closed, privileged, influential claim to represent anyone but themselves and their own interests?

    And I really hope that you are joking when you say that deference is a good thing? I have no problem with respecting people as people, but defering to someone simply because of who their family is!

  9. NineMoons says:

    In my lovely Regency book that my lovely Fence got me for my birthday, it makes an interesting point about the aristocracy in Britain. The Upper Ten Thousand constantly renewed their ranks by adding new aristos to the upper echelons – someone might be born of respectable family but attain high rank through military achievements or someone might be of the merchant class but climb the ranks through marriage. A gentleman or nobleman might be forced by threat of poverty to marry the daughter of a Cit or tradesman and that daughter would often have a difficult time being accepted in society because of her birth. However, her children and her children's children would be more readily accepted – the stain of their mother's origin would be decently buried and their more respectable parent's background would be kept to the fore. This was a normal and regular occurrence.

    Basically, the whole notion of an upper class based on birth is bollocks – it's a rare family that can trace noble or gentle lineage back on both sides. So even if an ancient and worthy family tree meant you were actually worthy of respect and deference, regardless of personal character (which I do not believe), such an ancient family tree is pretty rare. Maybe the Grimaldis have ruled Monaco since the Dark Ages but does that really make them worthy of knee-bending and cap-pulling? If you really buy into the whole notion of noble birth equalling worth, then surely the inclusion of the bloodline of someone like Grace Kelly would diminish your respect for the House of Grimaldi?

  10. Mal says:

    I'm deadly serious, and I absolutely believe respect and deference are a good thing, almost regardless of their object. When I see how insolence and in-your-faceness and bloody rudeness, from the Sex Pistols to Gordon Ramsay to Spitting Image to Liam Gallagher, has been valorised in the past forty years, it turns my stomach.

    An aristocracy, and a monarchy, would be primarily of symbolic importance…even if the young Lord is an obnoxious git (especially then) and you can't stand him, you are showing your respect to the ideals and the continuity of the community. And the purity of bloodlines is beside the point; of course there would be additions and marrying-in over time, but as you say, they would assimilate and more or less take on the characteristics of the circles they had joined. Which should ideally be one of public service and devotion to things of the intellect. It doesn't really matter how far short of that ideal the actual nobility falls, as long as that's the ideal.

    I agree with Yeats, there are some gifts and attainments that simply cannot be reached in one lifetime; they come from an environment "where wings have memories of wings". Just look at the amount of English writers and intellectuals who came from the ranks of the aristocracy, and even radicals like Tony Benn. I'm sure it has also blunted the worst vulgarity and crassness of the English plutocracy, over the centuries, that even when they had made their millions there was still another stratum of society above them, one to which they aspired and were not automatically accepted.

    Who would you rather have as the Irish upper class; Tony O Reilly and Michael O Leary and all those tossers, or some kind of Knights of Hibernia who had been brought up to admire the finer things in life, who never had to become abrasive and money-grabbing and obnoxious? An aristocracy benefits everybody, but not in any easily measurable way. And of course aristocracies originate from just those same tossers, but that's not the point.

  11. NineMoons says:

    Your idea that those in the aristocracy were devoted to ideals like public service and the pursuit of art and culture is inaccurate. Gentlemen who were responsible for their lands and those who worked their lands had to respect the obligations of nobility to take care of their workers and lands because if they did not, they would no longer have any money! Noblemen were further removed from these obligations because they generally had more money and privileges, such as immunity from being sued for debts. They had bailiffs and other employees to take care of their estates and did not have to involve themselves in anything other than major decisions, such as whether to mortgage their lands. They were thus free to spend their time hunting, shooting and fishing when in the country and dancing, drinking, gambling, whoring and marrying during the Season in London. Just because many of thse men and women were good, honourable and devoted to the duties and obligations of their position does not mean that that position is worthy of respect. One might be a roadsweeper or an earl, depending on one's birth. But one's character and worth is not determined by an accident of birth.

    I do not think we have an upper class in Ireland, so I don't think that Tony O'Reilly or Michael O'Leary could belong to any such class. I would have respect for people who are successful as well as honourable and moral – Feargal Quinn or Bono spring to mind. Or people who devote themselves to the good of others – some of the clergy, or people like Adi Roche. I don't have much time for the idea of the people you yearn for, those "brought up to admire the finer things in life, who never had to become abrasive and money-grabbing and obnoxious". Born with a silver spoon in their mouths? Appreciating the artistry and craftsmanship of the spoon? Never having to have a proper job because their status means that they will be provided for. Going to Oxford because their father went there. Not having to work for anything in their lives – it's all taken care of by their privileged position.

    Did you ever think that the fact that so many great English writers and intellectuals came from the ranks of the aristocracy (I assume you mean both gentlemen and noblemen) might be because they were more likely to be given an education and have more opportunities open to them because of their position in society? Even today, it's a lot easier for people from wealthy families with a tradition of education to pursue non-essential postgraduate courses, because their parents can afford to support them for longer. The intelligent John Citizen can theoretically pursue everything that Sir John can pursue, but it will be harder on him because he will have to fund it all himself.

  12. Fence says:

    Mal, you are crazy.

    There should be a basic level of respect for everyone in society. No matter their 'class.' No one should ever defer to anyone else without a valid reason, and the fact that someone is noble or not is not a valid reason.

    Having aristos around benefits no one. Apart from the aristos themselves, and even then they can be damaged by believing they are worth more than other people.

  13. NineMoons says:

    Yeah, crazy. That's the word!

  14. God preserve me from sanity!

    Isn't sanity the problem with our modern world, excessive sanity? That is, the kind of rationalistic, utilitarian, functional outlook on the world, the enshrining of homo economicus as the model of mankind? A completely atomistic, anti-historical perspective? Like Napoleon and his ten-hour day and the French Revolutionaries abolishing the old calender for their silly Thermidor and Fructidor. Like disgusting housing estates built to be cost-effective and rationally planned, because what other considerations could there be?

    Of course I considered that it was education and wealth that led to so many people of noble backgrounds become distinguished in the arts and other fields. But I don't think it holds up, there are just too many, even people from impoverished noble families like Lord Byron. Of course, it IS education in a way, but the kind of education you can't get from books or schools. It's coming from a background where people have the leisure to take ideas deadly seriously; reading biographies of these people makes that clear. Of course I admire someone like Charles Dickens, who achieved what he did against great adversity, and of course an experience like that deepens someone, builds character and often gives them sympathy for the downtrodden. But never having to have had to go through that also has its happy effects.

    I don't have any dewy-eyed notions of the English aristocracy and ruling classes historically, but isn't it telling that English popular revolts, from the Peasant's Revolt to the Chartist demonstrations, were always accompanied by fervent (and sincere) protests of loyalty to the King? They knew the monarchy symbolised the community, the greater good, however corrupted the ideal might become.

    Most things are an accident of birth, talent and brains no less than social position. As Samuel Johnson said, deferring to a nobleman because he was born into privilege causes less resentment than defering to somebody who's simply cleverer than you, or who has made more money.

  15. Napoleon and his ten-day week, I meant.

  16. Fence says:

    Why on earth would I defer to someone who has more money?

    You should never instinctively defer to anyone. Sure, if you meet a maths genius and they offer an opinion on maths, then by all means accept their reasoning as better than yours. But I wouldn't defer to them in any other context.

    Deference is merely a way to make other people feel inadequate. Nothing more.

    And as for Johnson's views, well I'd have to disasgree. I'd be much more resentlful of having to defer to someone for no reason at all.

  17. For the same reason people stand up for a national anthem…it's good for the soul to show respect and homage. It curbs our tendencies to arrogance and pugnacity. I don't mean deferring to their judgement…merely ceremonial things like letting them walk through a door ahead of you. The same way an atheist would call a priest "father".

    I like the thought of something that's sacrosanct, amidst the hurly-burly of abuse and vitriol. True pride doesn't object to bowing now and then. I think our society needs more courtesy; a touch of out-of-your-faceness.

  18. Fence says:

    Okay, deference and respect are two different things. I stand for the national anthem out of respect for the country, and all the people in it. Even the scumbags.

    I would never respect a person simply because they belonged in a certain class. I do not believe that they represent anything but their own interests.

  19. NineMoons says:

    If deferring to someone curbs my tendencies towarads arrogance and pugnacity, what does my deferral do to that person's tendencies? Confirms them in their belief that they are right in thinking they are above the little people?

    I don't mind the idea of having a national representative, like our President, who represents our nation and may deserve respect. But at least our representative is elected, not born to the position.

    I stand up when the priest enters the church at Mass or when the judge enters the court. Mostly because of habit, though partly out of respect. But I bend the knee to no-one but God, his Son or the Pope. I believe too much in equality to ever think that I should be knelt to by another or that I should kneel to anyone else.

    I really cannot disagree enough with you on this one Mal. Really. I honestly think it's an indefensible institution. Particularly the invented one you like the idea of.

  20. Mal says:

    Nobody for a second really believes in equality. There can be legal equality but that's about it. Everybody should be constantly striving upwards, intellectually and aesthetically, rather than the flabby self-satisfaction than republics and egalitarianism foster. I'm not even sure what equality means. Does it mean everybody is worthy of respect and dignity? I can agree with that. But respect and dignity aren't like a cake; by giving somebody more you're not diminishing the total. In fact you're increasing it; you're fostering a society less likely to create Johnny Rotten. "She ain't no human being". Wonderful satire. How freedom improves us all.

    I wouldn't want to have anybody kneel to me either. But you standing up for the judge is a case in point. He may be the greatest jackass in the country; it's irrelevant. It's what he symbolises you are respecting.

    There is inevitably going to be a class system, a hierarchy. I prefer aristocracy because its IDEAL is refinement, noblesse oblige, public service, grace and so forth. Otherwise you will just get a plutocracy or a bureaucracy, whose ideals are profit or efficiency. The reason I dislike the Presidency is because it IS elected; it's elected by the living only, and ignores the dead. Who are an important part of any community. And a President is inherently devisive, anyway. Because some people elected her and some didn't, she represents a section of society, rather than the whole like the Queen does.

  21. Fence says:

    NM, I wouldn't kneel to the pope. But apart from that I'd agree with you.

    Mal, I do believe in equality. And for much longer than a second. Totally. And by equality I mean that everyone is just as worthy of my respect as anyone else, until their actions prove otherwise. Equality doesn't mean that everyone is the same, not unless you are reading Kurt Vonnegut.

    And I disagree that there is inevitably going to be a class system, although I'll agree that society by its nature create hierarchies. A class system is different than a hierarchy.

    Class is all about limiting movement and preventing any sort of equality because of where you originate from. There is no such rigidity inherent to other forms of hierarchy.

    Class is defined by birth, and even if you do manage to move up it'll always take a generation if not more to be accepted. A hierarchy based on ability wouldn't have such prejudices.

    As for a monarch representing all of society! You are kidding, what about republicans? Or don't they get to be part of society? Everything in this world is devisive. That is part and parcel of being human, disagreeing with other people.

  22. NineMoons says:


    My head may explode. This is just not the kind of argument I thought I'd ever need to get involved in with another Irish person. I feel pretty ill.

    Now, back to the sex abusers!

  23. Fence says:

    C'mon NM, just cause I said i wouldn't kneel to the pope is no reason for your head to either explode nor implode ;)

  24. Mal says:

    Oh don't explode your head NM…the world would be a worser place without you.

    I'm always being accused of being un-Irish, a turncoat, West Brit etc. but the accusation doesn't bother me. I know real patriotism is always called treachery. I know the pacifists in WWI were given white feathers and called a disgrace to their King and country. I know that socialists in America in the fifties were called un-American and unpatriotic. And anyone who criticises the war in Iraq is seen as insulting the troops etc.

  25. Fence says:

    I don't think anyone can be un-Irish. There is no real definition of what Irishness is, apart from being a citizen of the country.

  26. NineMoons says:

    Never meant you were un-Irish, if such a thing exists. Meant it is bizarre to be having a discussion with someone who identifies himself as pro-aristocracy when he has spent all his life (apart from three days in Hull) in a country without an aristocracy. I assume (obviously incorrectly) that people from countries without a monarchy or an aristocracy would see that as a positive thing. But then I also assumed for most of my life that people of my generation believed in the equality of the sexes – until I met people who made me realise that enlightened views on equality are not universal.

    And since when is "real patriotism always called treachery"? Colour me confused.