UK paperback


Unspeak literally beamed into your eyes

Unspeak now exists as an “interactive documentary” made in collaboration with SubmarineChannel. There are six video episodes written and narrated by me, each with a different director, plus some cool data-visualization toys. It has been nominated for a 2013 Prix Europa award.

The website

Meanwhile more observations on language, in Unspeak and other modes, will henceforth be found in a semi-regular slot at the Guardian, eg most recently the Unspeak of privatization, and Steven Pinker’s trouble with “scientism”. Thanks for reading!


Charities tax

Philanthropy, philanthropy, they’ve all got it philanthropy

Picture the scene: a lover of humanity or “philanthropist” who regularly makes large donations to charity has just been told about the Conservative proposals to limit the tax “relief” he will “enjoy” on such contributions. “Wait a minute!” the philanthropist splutters. “You mean that, in order to get the warm glow of having given a million quid to charity, I will actually have to spend a million quid?” His butler regretfully informs him that yes, this is indeed the case. “Well then, fuhggedaboudit!” the “philanthropist” expostulates in fury. “I’ll spend it all on crack cocaine instead! FUCK YOU, CHARITABLE CAUSES!”

Such is the “philanthropic” calculation recognized as entirely natural and not worthy of moral comment by both sides in the “debate”. The Labour party in particular, desperate to avoid such comment, has simply decided to eliminate any mention of the moral agency of rich individuals by describing the proposals as something they are not, in an outrage-generating slogan of cynical Unspeak: so let’s all oppose the… CHARITIES TAX!

Now, any level of tax “relief” on charitable donations is effectively a form of voluntary hypothecation that undermines the justice of the tax system as a whole, as even its defenders recognize.1 The Conservative MP Richard Harrington put the issue with admirable clarity: “Is it acceptable, under any circumstances, for people obeying the law and earning money – a lot of money – to say ‘I’m opting out of paying tax on my income’ because they are giving to charity? Should people be able to choose to support, say, the National Theatre, the opera and Christian Aid, while choosing not to support the National Health Service, education and social services?”

This sounds like a respectable Labour position, doesn’t it? Yet under its current leader, the gorm-challenged2 Ed Miliband, Labour has opportunistically branded the proposals as the CHARITIES TAX, even though what is proposed is not any extra tax on charities, but rather a reduction in the money handed back to the rich as a reward for demonstrating their “philanthropy”. It is risibly inconsistent of Labour to oppose this while also opposing the Conservatives’ tax cut for the rich from 50% to 45%. To cover up the inconsistency, they simply slap a shiny new Unspeak label over what they are opposing this time, and hope no one will notice.

CHARITIES TAX is certainly a colourful specimen in its headline-chasing hucksterism, but we should also be careful about the use of the term “philanthropist” itself in such arguments. It implies that only those who have acquired lots of wealth and then disgorge it to carefully selected institutions can truly love their fellow humans, and it further implies that actually paying tax so that all members of your society might benefit is not philanthropic (or even charitable) at all. If some people are happy to describe themselves as “philanthropists” in this sense, media reports probably shouldn’t endorse the connotation of purchased virtue.

  1. Witness Dominic Lawson’s weird column in the Independent today, where he “explains” support for the plans as based on class envy: “It causes such people almost physical pain to think of the possible pleasure it gives to the rich when they tithe their income to charities of their choice, rather than in taxes to fund the state’s own choice.”
  2. This is a kinder way, I think, to say “gormless”.



It depends on what the meaning of “is” is

Can one word-change destroy a joke? I only ask because I reviewed William Boyd’s latest novel, Waiting for Sunrise, in last Saturday’s Guardian. (SPOILER: I didn’t like it much!) At one point, I wrote:

Many sentences could have done with extra care: early on, Lysander is seen “staring at a flowerbed in a fearful quandary”, which seems an unwise place to put a flowerbed.

But at some point during the editing process, my “seems” was changed to an “is”, resulting in the following version of the sentence being printed:

Many sentences could have done with extra care: early on, Lysander is seen “staring at a flowerbed in a fearful quandary”, which is an unwise place to put a flowerbed.

Personally I feel sad about this “is”. It sounds like I am a pompous pedantic dullard making grand claims to horticultural expertise. You may well think that I am a pompous pedantic dullard, readers, but I don’t actually think I am any good at garden-planning in urban spaces. Maybe it was a poor joke in the first place? But, you know, one poor joke can still be funnier than another. So I am going to put the question to the stern test of blog democracy, or blogcracy. Which word do you think makes the sentence funnier, “seems” or “is”? Please describe your reasons in the comments. Thanks for your “input”!

Sorry, there are no polls available at the moment.


Private-sector research work

Nice work if you can get it

Happy New Year, readers! I don’t know if this even qualifies as Unspeak because it’s such a breathtaking lie, but — if you can believe it — the “Research Works Act”, currently before the US Congress, bestows the name private-sector research work on research that is publicly funded, ie not done by the “private sector”. What the “private sector” (or, as Ralph Nader prefers to call it, the “corporate sector”) actually does is to get the reports of the publicly funded research for free, publish them, and then sell the publications back to public institutions at eye-wateringly venal prices. That’s private-sector price-gouging work, maybe, or private-sector university-blood-sucking work, but not, I think, private-sector research work. What kind of work have you very blatantly not done lately, readers?1

  1. More at Publisher’s Weekly. (Via Evgeny Morozov.)


Functionally insane

Amis and madness redux

Venus DeLilloDon DeLillo, one of the world’s greatest living writers, has a new short-story collection out. I reviewed it here; and Martin Amis reviewed it here, gaily wasting the first 500 of his allotted words on a tedious and dubious theory about why when we “love” a writer’s work, that really means that “we love about half of it”.

In obedience to his own ridiculous stricture, Amis proceeds to love about half the stories. What is revealing is what he says about the ones he doesn’t love. He complains that DeLillo “enters the void of the motiveless”, which can give us only “a rendering of the functionally insane — insanity being the sworn foe of the coherent”.

The idiosyncratic views about “insanity” held by Martin Amis will be familiar to some old-timers, since this strange invocation of “the functionally insane” echoes what Amis, as a quondam expert on world-troubling horroristicality, proffered as his expert diagnosis of Mohammad Atta et al — that they were “possessed by just the right kind of functioning insanity”.1

More importantly, though, Amis’s latest glib reference to (some kind of) “insanity” in DeLillo’s writing seems to me crassly to misunderstand what DeLillo is doing in literary terms. DeLillo is very deliberately writing about (among many other things) the ways in which people’s motivations can be opaque and mysterious, even to themselves. Particularly in the first story, “Creation”, about which Amis whines that “the reader’s naïve and no doubt vulgar curiosity […] goes ungratified”, the fact that the outbreak of the adulterous affair happens utterly without warning — even though the first-person narrator, describing events in the past tense, knows it was coming — is a brilliantly subtle formal way of representing the narrator’s present bafflement by his own past actions, and maybe in a way also his shame. But Amis dully insists that a motive must always be found in literature, even if it cannot be found in life: “Motive tends to provide coherence, and fiction needs things that cohere.” Maybe, if you are writing cartoons or Franzenesque soap operas.

For Amis, it seems that people in literature are just to be dismissed as “insane” if their motivations are not spelled out in uppercase crayon so that he, the great Martin Amis, is able to understand them. I hope it doesn’t work like that for him in real life, or it would be terribly hard being Martin Amis, always surrounded by so many mad people.

  1. Previously in “Martin Amis”: Any ethnicity; He’s got no talent; Chuckleheaded.



is an important key, yes

The Economist isn’t impressed with Intern Nation, or any general worries about the increasing practice of making young people (at least those who can afford it) work for free, in times of sharply increasing youth unemployment.

But forcing employers to provide pay and benefits and comply with lots of red tape is surely the quickest way to put them off, thereby depriving young people of an early experience of the future of work.

The future of work is… unpaid?

After all, what are those serial interns doing but learning about serial mastery?

They are being trained to compose Schoenbergian string quartets? Excellent!

But the best part comes last:

Many people are outrageously exploited at work, but interns are not among them. After all, they are getting a free education, something that few universities provide these days.

Thus is the ideal of education shrunk in the philistine mind of the market fanatic to something like “induction into the low-grade activities of a specific job, several times”. And young people are getting this for free from the humanitarian philanthropists at companies that offer internships.1 After meditating a while on this happy news about what education now means, I deduce courageously that we should immediately close down all the universities. After all, they are expensive, and can be teaching nothing but sophistry and illusion.

  1. They’re not actually getting it “free”, of course, once you take into account the opportunity cost of working for no pay.


Social fightback

When society attacks

In the wake of the great English smartphone riots, gelatine-fizzog’d brayer David Cameron concocted a splendidly vivid mixed metaphor:

Social problems that have been festering for decades have exploded in our face

Or is that a mixed metaphor? Perhaps the explosion was one of pus, the pus having built up in the festering wound, rather than an orange petroleum-fuelled explosion of the sort that everything makes in movies when you blow it up, including tanks of water and trees? Meanwhile, the idea that “our face” is singular, that the whole of society shares one face, is rather horrific. (Especially if that face is David Cameron’s.)

Most interesting, perhaps, was Cameron’s glib incitement of a social fightback, invoking the chaotic vigilante justice by underdogs-who-just-can’t-take-it-any-more of fightback, while simultaneously clawing back that plainly irresponsible suggestion with the rhetorically softening epithet social. (That Cameron wants to start a massive fightback against “ideas”, rather than, say, a reasoned argument, is depressingly revealing.) “Fightback” is also a helpful close cousin to the populist and antilegal concept of payback, as in community payback and Nick Clegg’s hilarious proposal for riot payback. Perhaps if everyone who joined up to the social fightback that Cameron incited did so while wearing a full-faced David Cameron mask and a gimp outfit, that would “send” the right “message”.

Meanwhile, in other Unspeak-related developments: there is a new website called newswordy, which picks a topical word, giving current citations from news or Twitter, and gives a short definition of it. It sometimes confuses parts of speech (“vindication” is said to mean “to clear”), and makes no attempt at analysis whatsoever, prompting one to wonder what exactly the point is. It’s beautifully designed, though, isn’t it?

In vocabulary news, the new COED includes the words sexting and cyberbullying, while Collins has decided that words including aerodrome and supererogate are defunct. I call on the Unspeak™ Community™ to use them daily from now on.

Lastly, from the LRB, one learns that philosophising was “Mary Wollstonecraft’s euphemism for sex with William Godwin”. Have you done any philosophising lately, readers?


Three seven five

The price is right

I was “browsing” in a shop the other day, when my companion enquired as to the price of a piece of leather merchandise. The shop assistant told us the price, not by saying the actual number, but by uttering single digits: “Three seven five.” This is an increasingly common and delightfully transparent strategy of commercial Unspeak, whereby the hearer is discouraged from conceptualizing the figure as a real sum of money (“Oh em gee, three hundred and seventy-five pounds!?”). Instead one may merely relax into the mellifluous recitation of single integers, as though a savant somewhere is reciting the million-and-nth digits of pi tau; one may even imagine one’s own decimal point, placed anywhere in the series that makes it seem more agreeable; and, as my companion noted, if the reciter speaks slowly enough, it seems possible for the merchant to hope that you will have forgotten the first digit, and the total number of digits, by the time the speaker arrives at the last.1 I expect that soon some enterprising emporium will instruct its associates to communicate prices in binary?

What other rhetorical strategies of price obfuscation cause you to buy nice things, readers?

  1. On the other hand, I have noticed that car prices in TV ads tend to be announced along the lines of “Ten nine nine five”: perhaps for a series of five digits or longer, the worry is that the listener could be confused into thinking that the price is an order or two of magnitude greater than it is.


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