Say, Don’t Be Mean! Mean What You Don’t Say

Norman Mailer, on how vague and euphemistic language became under Soviet totalitarianism (at roughly 17m 57s):

I learned a lot about Soviet society…[we wanted to have the interpreter ask] ‘What year was your father in the gulag?’ since it had come up in the conversation in a roundabout way. And [the interpreter] said, ‘I will not ask that question; it will wreck the interview. You will insult them by such a question; it will not go on.’ So we said, well ask the question the way you want to ask it. So she asked the question and got an answer so we turned and said what did you ask them and she’d say, ‘I say to them: was there a year that was worse for your family than other years?’ And through that you began to get a sense of how aroundabout everything was in the old Soviet Union, that people became….not evasive, but they phrased questions in such a way that they had no sharp edges, there was no handle to the conversation so they could not be repeated definitively afterward in such a way as to incriminate you.

This, he goes on to say, in contrast to the native “brusque approach” of the Russian language which has “no definite or indefinite articles.”

Whenever I encounter someone talking about euphemism (e.g., PC), twistification (e.g., legalese, propaganda), and other forms of linguistic dishonesty, I think of two people who were excellent on the subject, rightly calling such phenomena precinctive to sick societies. George Carlin:


And Gore Vidal:

“Currently, any use of the word “race” in the United States is considered an a priori proof of the user’s racism. Abstract nouns are now subject to close scrutiny to make sure that the noun’s deployer is not a racist or sexist or ageist or bigot. Meanwhile, any word or phrase that might cause distress must undergo erasure while euphemism (the E- — or is it U- or Eu- — word?) is the order of the day, as “body bag” suddenly becomes, in Pentagonese, “human remains pouch” since “pouch” is a resolutely cheery word, suggesting cute marsupials Down Under, while “bag” is a downer, as in “bag lady,” Munich, appeasement, Hitler. A babble of words that no one understands now fills the airwaves, and language loses all meaning as we sink slowly, mindlessly, into herstory rather than history because most rapists are men, aren’t they?

when Confucius was asked what would be the first thing that he would do if he were to lead the state – a never-to-be-fulfilled dream — he said, __Rectify the language__. This is wise. This is subtle. As societies grow decadent, the language grows decadent, too. Words are used to disguise, not to illuminate, action: You liberate a city by destroying it. Words are used to confuse, so that at election time people will solemnly vote against their own interests. Fianlly, words must be so twisted as to justify an empire that has now ceased to exist, much less make sense.