UK paperback

Extract: Introduction

From the opening of the book: what is Unspeak?

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. His companion was baffled: what did this have to do with good government? The philosopher lamented his companion’s foolishness, and explained. When the names for things are incorrect, speech does not sound reasonable; when speech does not sound reasonable, things are not done properly; when things are not done properly, the structure of society is harmed; when the structure of society is harmed, punishments do not fit the crimes; and when punishments do not fit the crimes, the people don’t know what to do. ‘The thing about the gentleman,’ he warned, ‘is that he is anything but casual where speech is concerned.’ The philosopher’s name was Confucius, and he was referring to a phenomenon that is all around us today. He was talking about Unspeak.

Let’s see how it works. What do the phrases ‘pro-choice’, ‘tax relief’, or ‘Friends of the Earth’ have in common? They are all names that also contain political arguments in a way that alternative names – say, ‘opposed to the criminalisation of abortion’, ‘tax reduction’, or ‘a group of environmental campaigners’ – do not.

Campaigners against abortion had from the early 1970s described their position as defending a ‘right to life’. The opposing camp, previously known as ‘pro-abortionists’, then renamed their position ‘pro-choice’, rhetorically softening what they favoured. Defending a woman’s ‘right to choose’ whether to have a baby or not, the slogan ‘pro-choice’ appealed to an apparently inviolable concept of individual responsibility. It sought to cast adversaries as ‘anti-choice’: as interfering, patriarchal dictators. However, the phrase also carried unfortunate associations with the consumerist ideal of ‘choice’, as though choosing cereals in a supermarket was an appropriate model for ethics. Indeed, anti-abortionists quickly trumped that linguistic strategy by beginning to call themselves ‘pro-life’, a term first recorded in 1976. The phrase ‘pro-life’ appeals to a sacred concept of ‘life’, and casts one’s opponents – those who think abortion should be legally available – necessarily as anti-life, in fact pro-death. In a conceptual battle of two moral ideals, ‘life’ easily wins out over ‘choice’.

To talk of ‘tax relief’, meanwhile, is already to take a position on socially desirable levels of taxation. One is relieved of a load, or a pain, or an illness. In 2004, the White House website advertised the Working Families Tax Relief Act with a peculiar little animation, in which white bars zoomed out across the screen, accompanied by a whooshing metallic sound effect. ‘Tax relief’ was thus pictured dynamically as like being released from prison. So, even before you start having a debate about tax levels, the phrase ‘tax relief’ already contains an argument that tax should be minimised whenever possible. ‘Tax relief’ goes hand in hand with a similar name for what it seeks to reduce: the ‘tax burden’, which describes something while already arguing that it should be as low as possible. After all, no one likes a burden.

‘Friends of the Earth’ is a network of environmental groups in seventy countries. The name efficiently consigns anyone who disagrees with their specific policies to the category of ‘Enemy of the Earth’. An enemy of the earth must be a very nasty sort of person indeed, a sci-fi villain like Ming the Merciless. Moreover, the claim that the Earth is the sort of thing you can be ‘friends’ with smuggles in a further holistic concept of the entire planet as a living organism: a Gaia theory, which carries a large implicit cargo of policy implications.

Each of these terms, then – ‘pro-life’, ‘tax relief’, ‘Friends of the Earth’ – is a name for something, but not a neutral name. It is a name that smuggles in a political opinion. And this is done in a remarkably efficient way: a whole partisan argument is packed into a sound bite. These precision-engineered packages of language are launched by politicians and campaigners, and targeted at newspaper headlines and snazzy television graphics, where they land and dispense their payload of persuasion into the public consciousness.

Words and phrases that function in this special way go by many names. Some writers call them ‘evaluative-descriptive terms’. Others talk of ‘terministic screens’, or discuss the way debates are ‘framed’. I will call them Unspeak.

Double or nothing

Why the name Unspeak? It is an attempt to capture the Janus-like nature of such language. On the one hand, a phrase like ‘pro-life’ carries with it a whole unspoken argument – that a foetus should be considered a person; that ‘life’ must be preserved in all situations – that it does not set out explicitly. It represents an attempt to say something without saying it, without getting into an argument and so having to justify itself. At the same time, it tries to unspeak – in the sense of erasing, or silencing – any possible opposing point of view, by laying a claim right at the start to only one way of looking at a problem: in terms of ‘life’ rather than ‘choice’, or in terms of tax as something to be ‘relieved’ rather than, say, a way of ‘contributing’ to society.

Now, all language does both of these things to some extent. Every word arrives at the ear cloaked in a mist of associations and implications; and every choice of a particular word represents a decision not to use another one. But Unspeak deliberately amplifies and exploits these properties of language for political motives.The word Unspeak also inevitably recalls the vocabulary of George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, specifically the Newspeak of his totalitarian society. But Newspeak was a cruder tool of manipulation. By erasing words from the lexicon, Newspeak made old, troublesome concepts literally unthinkable. Its B Vocabulary, meanwhile, consisted of ‘words which had been deliberately constructed for political purposes’ – often crude euphemisms, such as ‘joycamp’ for ‘forced-labour camp’. (In fact, the existing phrase ‘concentration camp’ already did the same thing somewhat more subtly: people in ‘concentration camps’, after all, did not sit around in tents playing chess or writing poetry. That phrase originated as a British euphemism for its own practices in South Africa. Language that was originally used by the perpetrators of violence in order to justify it became the normal term: a pattern that we will see repeated in Chapter Four.)

But Unspeak does not need to burn dictionaries or invent totally new words to accomplish a similar task. As an Unspeak phrase becomes a widely used term of public debate, it tends to saturate the mind with one viewpoint and to make an opposing view ever more difficult to enunciate. Another term often used to describe political language is ‘doublespeak’, a word not coined by Orwell himself but clearly modelled on his concepts of Newspeak and Doublethink (in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the ability to believe two opposing ideas simultaneously). Introduced in the 1950s, ‘doublespeak’ (or ‘double-talk’) is generally used to describe the phenomenon of saying one thing while meaning another. Ironically for a term that is often used by critics of euphemism, ‘doublespeak’ itself is really a euphemism for lying. But Unspeak does not say one thing while meaning another. It says one thing while really meaning that thing, in a more intensely loaded and revealing way than a casual glance might acknowledge. Indeed, this book is intended as a corrective to the common idea that politicians do nothing but spout hot air: that their speech, when it is not frankly misleading, is just empty and meaningless.

In an excellent anatomy of the logical fallacies in the rhetoric of Tony Blair, for example, philosopher Jamie Whyte nevertheless claimed: ‘Most politicians waste our time with platitudinous, visionary waffle.’ The most celebrated statement of such an opinion, meanwhile, was written by George Orwell himself, in his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’, published in 1946:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. […] The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink. […] Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

‘Cloudy vagueness?’ ‘Pure wind?’ On the contrary, we can often learn a great deal about what politicians’ ‘real aims’ are from taking seriously, and closely studying, their ‘declared aims’. Take the time to unravel the assumptions packed up in a piece of Unspeak, and you will be better able to attack that chain of reasoning at its base. Forewarned is forearmed. Even the most brutal kind of euphemism teaches us valuable things about the mindset of the people who employ it – as we shall see, for example, when looking at the abominable case of ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Chapter Four. (In the above passage, even Orwell himself unthinkingly adopts the Soviet euphemism for mass murder – referring to ‘the Russian purges’ – without considering what it implies.)

The truth is that propagandistic speech can never be totally efficient. Language will not serve just one master. In sealing up their worldviews in little shells of Unspeak, politicians cannot help but reveal a lot about what they really mean, to anyone who listens closely enough.

Orwell’s essay, much-quoted as it is, evinces a kind of defeatist attitude: it boils down to saying that politicians are simply not worth listening to. A more valuable approach was demonstrated by Victor Klemperer, a Jewish writer who only narrowly escaped death in Nazi Germany. Klemperer survived because he was married to a non-Jewish woman, and so was able to hand down to posterity a masterful analysis of propaganda: his diary of the changing German language under Nazi rule, The Language of the Third Reich, first published in 1957. In his introduction, Klemperer emphasises the point that propagandistic speech can never completely hide what it is up to:

People are forever quoting Talleyrand’s remark that language is only there in order to hide the thoughts of the diplomat (or for that matter of any other shrewd and dubious person). But in fact the very opposite is true. Whatever it is that people are determined to hide, be it only from others, or from themselves, even things they carry around unconsciously – language reveals
all. That is no doubt the meaning of the aphorism Le style c’est l’homme; what a man says may be a pack of lies – but his true self is laid bare for all to see in the style of his utterances.

Klemperer goes on to demonstrate the truth of this by buildingup a portrait of the worldview of Hitler and Goebbels through detailed analysis of their attempts to twist the language to their own purposes: from the adoption of ‘fanatical’ as a term of praise, and a crazed insistence that the most trivial event is ‘historical’, to the dehumanisation of human beings through mechanical or financial metaphors (which continues, as we shall see, in contemporary English).

So, too, this book will contend that we may better understand the motivations of politicians, as well as the substance of political arguments, by paying close attention to terms of Unspeak such as ‘anti-social behaviour’, ‘tragedy’, and even ‘war on terror’, rather than sniffily dismissing them as ‘pure wind . . .

  1. 1  PeterB  January 24, 2006, 2:31 pm 

    Very interesting. So essentially you are endorsing the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis?

  2. 2  Guardian of the Klingons  January 24, 2006, 5:11 pm 

    What the hell is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis?

  3. 3  Mike Herd  January 24, 2006, 6:10 pm 

    Google is your friend, dude.

  4. 4  Steven Poole  January 25, 2006, 9:34 am 

    Essentially the idea that changing language changes the kinds of thing it is possible to think. Anyone who finds Orwell’s 1984 remotely plausible, or admires Wittgenstein, or has thought about translation, can hardly disagree.

  5. 5  Mata  January 25, 2006, 4:13 pm 

    This reminds me of a discussion that developed from a post in my blog about the use of language in advertising to change the way that people think.

    In essence, one reader felt I was over-estimating the power of language repeatedly associated with a product to change the minds of viewers. I was a little surprised to find someone who doubted it!

    On a pop-cultural level, Derren Brown’s experiments into the control of individuals demonstrate the power of insistent messages.

  6. 6  Steven Poole  January 27, 2006, 9:00 am 

    Well, one can certainly argue over the extent to which it is true. I think “mind control” is too strong a description. Decades of watching car advertisements, for instance, have not yet forced me to learn to drive. The idea of “mind control” also displays a patronising view of the public as helpless sheep. On the contrary, the view I take in Unspeak is that we will not be taken in for a moment by deceptive political language if we actually stop to think about it. The problem is more that the people whose full-time job one might assume it is to weigh and investigate the substance behind political rhetoric – ie, journalists – often do not do so to a sufficient extent, instead uncritically repeating the slogans fed them by governments.

  7. 7  Mata  January 27, 2006, 5:27 pm 

    Fair enough, the term is a little strong, but I suspect that the truth is somewhere in the middle of our views when it comes to advertising. Adverts that tell viewers to ‘imagine taking a bite of delicious creamy cheesecake’ are using NLP to get additional impact on their customers. Like most psychological techniques, it does rely on the viewer having a slight interest in the topic (I’ve never bothered learning to drive either) but it can exert a powerful effect on consumers; the very fact that individuals are categorised by the act of consumption is an indication of the way in which they are viewed by the retail industry!

    I think you are absolutely right to say that there are far more muddy waters in regard to journalism and political media, which is the field that you seeem to be covering in Unspeak. I’m really looking forward to reading it, it sounds like a very interesting study.

  8. 8  Marcus Alexander  February 12, 2006, 12:24 pm 

    I think one of the most powerfull methods used today for altering perceptions, is simply not talking about or mentioning a topic, rather than actively persuading people.

    If something isnt described or mentioned it doesnt register strongly with people, who if they then notice the topic, they are very unsure about their feelings until somebody else mentions it, if that veiw then conflicts or agrees with them they have a point of reference and stronger feelings emerge.

    It just seems to me that today much of the political talk, is about world affairs, Terrorism, never about home matters like they were say 20 years ago. I think this is quite deliberate. I will read unspeak.

  9. 9  bingowings  February 14, 2006, 7:50 am 

    Good book Steven, once you see the Americans were behind 9/11 the whole Orwellian nightmare becomes crystal clear.

  10. 10  Ewan  February 14, 2006, 9:08 am 

    Is ‘Unspeak’ unspeak?

  11. 11  james  February 14, 2006, 9:45 am 

    …but Sapir and Whorf were cautious about proposing an alternative objectivity to the language they investigated. Poole is not. For instance this morning on the Today programme (on BBCR4) he presented a number of examples (which he did not credit to George Lakoff but should have) including the ‘UnSpeak’ of referring to either ‘terrorists’ or ‘resistance’ in Iraq, praising the media for saying ‘insurgents’.

    For this point to be of value Mr. Poole would have to show that the term ‘insurgent’ has no connotations and that it is an objectively true term and that there are no reasons at all for presenting them as terrorists or as resistance. In short he would have to deny that there is in fact any argument to be had about this at all, to stamp out the political dispute and impose his objective term ‘insurgents’.

    We have politics becomes sometimes issues and phenomena are objectively contestable. There are good reasons for saying either term, there are good reasons for thinking of tax as a burden and as an investment. In the face of this we have a democratic system which permits and encourages arguments (and thus all the artistry of political rhetoric) in an ongoing contest through which we are always making judgements (first this way, then that) as to what we should do, how we should do it and how we should understand and interpret the social world. Democracy is premised on the fact that sometimes the argument (rtaher than the single truth) is objectvely the case and not any particular side in it.

    The alternative to this is to oppose argument and insist that politics and society adhere to the objective understanding we hold. This position eliminates political argument and is in fact anti-political (we used to call it totalitarian).

    In adopting the currently fashionable position that all politics is about instrumental lying and manipulation and in failing to reflect further on what politics really is and how language and argument actually work Poole (I am sure unwittingly) falls into a position that is absolutely antithetical to the maintenance of a healthy civil and free republic. He should have read his Cicero with more care.

    There are many cultural pressures on political argument today and many of them appear in the guise of wanting to purify and clarify our politics – to make it more ‘fair’ and ‘rational’ to enhance political freedom and intelligence (and they may well be sincere in this). They like to imagine they are defending us from the unscrupulous but they actually further a hostility and suspicion to politics that sustains a quietist apathy; they intensify hankering for settled and universal political truths to replace the uncertainties of free debate thus encouraging fundamentalisms; and, perhaps most ironically, they encourage us to believe that politicians are terribly important and powerful shapers of our culture thus distracting us from the cultural forces (in commerce, advertising and entertainment media) that really do ‘frame’ things.

    I am sorry to go on about this at such length. It makes me sad when smart people cannot see what they are doing.

  12. 12  Steven Poole  February 15, 2006, 3:26 pm 


    If you read the extract from the introduction posted here, you will see that of course I do not claim that there is any such thing as “objectively” neutral language; in fact I am careful to state the opposite. Nonetheless it is quite clear that “insurgents” is less biased than either of the alternatives.

    You will find George Lakoff cited in the book’s notes, along with many other analysts whose work preceded his. I am puzzled by your suggestion that Lakoff somehow owns the example of terrorists v resistance, since I elaborated this after my own conversations with television and print journalists.

    The charge that I am “anti-politics”, which looks set to become the standard Labour riposte to such arguments, is just silly. Plainly, the book is pro-politics. It expresses a wish that those who think tax is a burden, for example, should argue so explicitly, rather than trying to shut the debate down before it begins with carefully chosen phrases of ideological bias. My book is anti-politics only in the sense that it is critical of politics as currently conducted, as a loud but unilluminating clash of incommensurable slogans.

    As to your charge of totalitarianism: if you wish to see what totalitarian Unspeak really looks like, I recommend you read Viktor Klemperer on the langauge of the Third Reich.

  13. 13  james  February 15, 2006, 9:09 pm 

    Dear Steve,

    Thanks for your response.

    I am sorry but I do not see where in the introduction you state the opposite of a claim that there is such a thing as objectively neutral language. You seem to me to clearly position yourself outside of the utterances of politicians and political campaigners, as an external observer who will unpack the real meaning of their words. And you connect yourself to KlempererÂ?s desire to show the Â?true selfÂ? behind the words. And you draw on Orwell who certainly did (as you will know) desire a glass like prose that transmitted the facts and the truth. All of these, especially the use of Orwell, suggests to me that you conceive of language as, essentially, a tool that we turn when our already-formed thoughts are to be expressed to others rather than as the way in which our thoughts are formed. You want to reveal what you call the Â?real aimsÂ? of the politician and you use a number of terms to suggest that those who use what you call Â?unspeakÂ? do so with a fully conscious intent to deceive or at least to obscure or sweeten. This would seem to me automatically to discount the possibility that when the campaigner says Â?pro-choiceÂ? it is because this is in fact how he or she grasps the issue, defines it and thinks with it just as the Â?friend of the earthÂ? grasps his or her relationship to the earth in that way.

    When you state that Â?it is quite clear that “insurgents” is less biased than either of the alternativesÂ? this too reinforces my interpretation of your position. I do not at all see how it is less biased. Perhaps you think it is less biased because it means you do not take up either of the two sides – because it seems to position you as neither a supporter of the Â?terroristsÂ? nor of the Â?occupiersÂ?? But just because a position is a third way between two alternatives does not make it unbiased or neutral. It is indeed, a position. We do not call pacifists unbiased or neutral. To do so would be to rob them of their political position. And to refuse to Â?nameÂ? certain people in, say, Iraq terrorists or resistance is simultaneously to take up a position (one I would associate with a certain strand of western liberalism) and to implicitly deny that there are any good reasons for agreeing with either of the designations (and thus to position yourself outside of or even above and beyond the political argument Â? which is why I called your position anti-political.

    Sometimes disputes arise between which there is no neutral, common or objective ground. Such is the case with abortion but many other issues also. There is such a gulf because the positions of the disputants derive from sincerely held world-views, perhaps in which they are emotionally invested, and often each position can adduce some good points for it. Politics is not science for it deals with uncertain moral territories where there are only arguments and what democracy does is allow the parties to present their cases in all their partisan glory, to create the thought and word images that might win others to their cause. I think you reject this phenomena.

    Indeed, you call for a politics that is not a clash of incommensurable slogans. What would that look like? What would that reasonable consensual non-partisan politics look like? Would it not be a cosy centrist little politics in which nothing really big is at stake, where there are no real challenges to the root principles of the dominant view (because everyone, in order to be reasonable and to avoid being naughtily incommensurable, has to agree in advance? Then there would be only little skirmishes over this and that technical procedure. WouldnÂ?t this be a bit of third way mush that works, precisely, by ruling out serious changes in advance by a sleight of hand.

    I think that instead of going around trying to cleanse political language and make it clearer you should be making it muckier, helping it to be as various and argumentative as possible. In our post-political age, that of global marketisation when Irwin Steltzer writes for the Guardian about how great Gordon Brown is and celebrity activists advise the Tories on ecology, the walls of consensus are closing in. I think you are handing them the bricks.

    Best wishes

    James Whicker

  14. 14  Steven Poole  February 15, 2006, 11:03 pm 


    The passage I had in mind from the introduction was the following:

    “[a]ll language does both of these things to some extent. Every word arrives at the ear cloaked in a mist of associations and implications; and every choice of a particular word represents a decision not to use another one. But Unspeak deliberately amplifies and exploits these properties of language for political motives.”

    You imagine that I disagree with your statement that language “is the way in which our thoughts are formed”. On the contrary, I agree with it (and, of course, so did Orwell, or he would not have written Ninteen Eighty-Four). Indeed, if language were not the way in which our thoughts are formed, then Unspeak would not be so effective.

    You imply that perhaps I am exaggerating when I say that “those who use ‘unspeak’ do so with a fully conscious intent to deceive or at least to obscure or sweeten”. The book cites documentary evidence that this is in fact the case, as in the examples of “climate change”, or “anti-social behaviour”, or “intelligent design”, or military operation names such as “Just Cause” for the invasion of Panama, or, indeed, “Operation Iraqi Freedom”, and so on. You suppose that this fact is somehow incompatible with the image of the “pro-choice” campaigner really grasping the issue that way. But it is not. The point is that the campaigner is trying to get everyone else to grasp the issue in the same way through the use of the same phrase.

    You say you cannot see at all how “insurgents” is less biased than “terrorists” or “resistance”. It is clearly less biased in the sense that it offers less of a ready-made moral opinion, when used (as all three terms were) as a blanket description of _all_ who were fighting the occupation in Iraq, not “certain people”. Perhaps you would like to offer an example of the “good reasons” you suppose existed for calling them all “terrorists”?

    How does my humble recommendation for more honesty in political language translate into your dystopia of a “cosy centrist little politics” in which there is nothing but a bland consensus? If people were more honest about having their ideological fights in the open, about explicitly debating whether it was a good idea to start certain wars or torture certain people, I have no doubt there would still be a lot of disagreement. But that disagreement might, at last, be really democratic.


  15. 15  james  February 16, 2006, 8:39 pm 


    I think we are in danger of going round in circles for some time because we differ not only in what we think but in how we go about thinking it. So, let me just state two basic positions which I think we disagree over.

    Firstly, and to pick up on our example of ‘insurgent’, ‘terrorist’ and ‘resistance’. I do not think that the true designation is to be found in the actions or intentions of the people the labels refer to. I think that the truth, as in all politics, is perspectival and that political debate is precisely about shifting others’ perspectives.

    Secondly, perspectives cannot be caused to shift simply by rational appeal alone because perspectives contain chains of reasoning within them (and this is why opposing political language that is ‘unreasonable’, such as what you call UnSpeak, is to confine us within a perspective and preclude a challenge to it in advance – hence ‘anti-political’).

    Thirdly (and this, I suspect, is the heart of the matter) I do not think that there is a line between language that is honest and clear and language which covertly smuggles in assumptions. All language at all times smuggles in assumptions – when we say ‘dog’ we abstractly lump all dogs together and without explicit justification separate them off from all sorts of other animals (some of which cam seem very similar to dogs).

    This is what lies behind my view that one should seek, rather than to make language clear like pane of glass, or clean or whatever, one should seek to dirty it, to proliferate the parties to a disagreement, encourage a proliferation of the perspectives.

    In terms of ‘democracy’ one can map this on to two rival conceptions. The dominant liberal one is always associated with a particular conception of individualism and freedom that, because it wants first and foremost to protect that individual from any interference, can quite easily, as I think in your case, come to actually find persuasion as such somewhat importuning and thus, if not fully illegitimate, at least intrinsically suspect. This is not an unrespectable position by any means.

    But there is also a republican conception for which democracy entails very active participation most often conceived as the visible spectacle of clashing opinions, the staging and performing of arguments between rivals. This is why rhetoric (as a theory and a practice) tends to flourish in republics but wither in liberal democracies.

    The irony in this discussion is that ‘spin’ (which I think is what you really don’t like) is actually based on the straightforwardly referential theory of language implicit in your commentary – only the spinner chooses to try and subvert it. But this is quite different to arguing in truncated imagistic form. Spin is bad politics because it eschews argumentation (and for this reason wins no true conviction). But to oppose argumentation and rhetoric because one dislikes spin is, if I may covertly smuggle assumptions in to the argument by use of a rhetorical figure justified by its folkloric status – to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    Anyway, we can only proceed meaningfully if we ascertain if there is any possibility of our agreeing on our theory of language.


  16. 16  Steven Poole  February 16, 2006, 11:42 pm 


    You say that to oppose Unspeak is “to confine us within a perspective and preclude a challenge to it in advance”. I am saying that this is exactly what Unspeak does.

    You tell me that “all language at all times smuggles in assumptions”, even though I have just quoted to you a passage from my Introduction that says exactly that.

    Until you engage with what I have actually written rather than what you guess I might think, I fear we will indeed continue to go around in circles.


  17. 17  ANON  March 13, 2006, 12:40 am 

    What we believe as adults and how we understand language, especially repetitive cliches, has to do with how we were conditioned as children.

  18. 18  ANON  March 20, 2006, 8:07 pm 

    Words to the heat of deed, do fair breath give! Shakespeare

  19. 19  Steven Poole  March 21, 2006, 5:11 pm 

    Unspeak mine own detraction…

  20. 20  Fergus McGonigal  March 22, 2006, 11:46 am 

    Dear Mr Poole,

    I wasnÂ?t quite sure where to post my comment. Apologies.

    I greatly enjoyed reading your book. It has provided me with two great new games. The first is to spot examples of Unspeak in the media (one needs to accept your definition).

    For example:

    Last night on television, I saw a report about how a group of US soldiers had stormed into a house and murdered 15 Iraqi civilians, each killed by a bullet to the head. The spokesman for the military wanted to investigate whether “Marines killing of 15 non-combatants was an act of legitimate self-defence or negligent homicide.”

    Â?15 Non-combatantsÂ? Â? Unspeak for a family of 15

    Â?Negligent homicideÂ? Â? Unspeak just shot in the head for no good reason

    Of course, one always shoots unarmed children in the head in legitimate self-defence, doesnÂ?t one? TheyÂ?re so dangerous.

    Planting the idea that there is such a thing as legitimate self-defence brings up the notion that there is also illegitimate, or unlawful, self-defence (presumably to sow the seed that when an Iraqi non-combatant attacks a US soldier it is unlawful self-defence).

    The second game is to invent unspeak of your own. For example:

    Â?PlayÂ? Â? unspeak for war

    Â?Make friends withÂ? Â? unspeak for kill

    For exampleÂ?

    Â?The US military have announced that they are going to play with the people of Iran. It is expected that they will make friends with some of the Iranian non-combatants.Â?

    Â?ToyÂ? Â? unspeak for bombs.

    For exampleÂ?

    Â?When they go to play in Iran, the soldiers will use toys to make friends with Iranian children.Â?

    IÂ?d always dismissed politicians (and indeed, most people in the media who are there to protect a vested interest) as evasive and dishonest, but itÂ?s only after reading Unspeak that I have listened to what they are saying (having previously drowned most of their utterances out to yells of, Â?Why canÂ?t you just answer the bloody question?Â?). In order to play game 1, one needs to listen to what the politicians et al are saying, and after only a few days I have come to the conclusion that, excuse my language, they are trying to fuck with my head.


  21. 21  Steven Poole  March 22, 2006, 11:00 pm 

    Hello Mr McGonigal,

    Thanks for your comments; I’m very pleased you liked the book.

    You probably also noticed what is to my mind the critical fact that the investigator’s question of whether “Marines killing of 15 non-combatants was an act of legitimate self-defence or negligent homicide” deliberately excludes a third, unmentioned possibility. That it was deliberate homicide, or, as we call it, murder.

    Clearly such a third possibility is literally unspeakable.


  22. 22  Fergus McGonigal  March 23, 2006, 11:17 am 

    Dear Mr Poole,

    I am intrigued to know to what effect you use the word “Islamist” in “Unspeak”.

    I had noticed its increased use in the media several months ago, and thought it a pejorative term in much the same way that Roman Catholics used to be labelled Papists or Romanists. Surely one is either a Muslim or a follower of Islam?

    While I think that the world could probably do with more rationalists and fewer religious believers, if we are to embrace (rather than tolerate – spot on there) a diversity of beliefs, then we ought to get the labels right.

    Oh, and by the way, I’ve persuaded my reading group to read Unspeak, so the next time you bump into me, it’s a pint of ale. Ta.

    All the best,

  23. 23  Steven Poole  March 23, 2006, 1:44 pm 

    Dear Mr McGonigal,

    “Islamist” is a term used by many scholars of the middle east to describe a particular militant, theocratic strain of thinking (that recommends violence in pursuit of a reunited Caliphate under Sharia law), whose modern character can be traced back to Qutb in the 1950s. It is thus deliberately used instead of, say, “Islamic”, in order to avoid the vicious ascription of such opinions to all Muslims, etc.

    I see your point, however, that to those unfamiliar with such analysis, “Islamist” could look like various other terms of disapprobation that end in “-ist”, even though that was not the intention of those who introduced the term, which was coined more on the model of “nationalist”. So I will explain the sense of this term in the next edition of the book.

    I hope your reading group enjoys Unspeak, and thanks again for your contribution.


  24. 24  Fergus McGonigal  March 23, 2006, 2:34 pm 

    Dear Mr Poole,

    Thank you for your reply – most enlightening.

    Henceforth, I shall listen a little more carefully to see if Islamic and Islamist really are on the way to becoming interchanged, as I had perhaps erroneously assumed.


  25. 25  Cat  March 24, 2006, 4:29 pm 

    Hello Mr. Poole,

    I would be most interested in knowing your opinion on the issue of excessive usage of terms referring to morality in sphere of public education.

  26. 26  Steven Poole  March 24, 2006, 4:34 pm 

    Hello Cat,

    I’m not sure what you mean. Examples?


  27. 27  Cat  March 24, 2006, 4:52 pm 

    Sample titles of required texts in Ethics of Ed class:

    Moral questions in the classroom, by K.Simon

    Moral principles of education, by J.Dewey

    Moral life of schools, by Jackson, Boostrom & Hansen

    FYI, K.Simon is a co-executive director at the Coalition of Essential Schools, CA.

    I appreciate your comments.

  28. 28  Steven Poole  March 24, 2006, 5:33 pm 

    I can’t really comment since I haven’t read the books. Perhaps you can reveal what your point is? Are you against “Ethics of Education” in general?


  29. 29  Colum McCaffery  May 6, 2006, 4:10 am 


    I enjoyed your book.

    As an Irish person I find our geatest example of unspeak to be “the peace process”. When decoded this turns out to be an IRA threat.

    It reminds of the old story of the Tory MP who wanted to phase out hanging.

  30. 30  Steven Poole  May 12, 2006, 2:00 am 

    Dear Colum,

    Glad you enjoyed it, thank you. “Peace process” is indeed interesting. Where there is a carrot of peace, perhaps there is a stick somewhere too.


  31. 31  ANON  May 12, 2006, 5:16 pm 

    “the view I take in Unspeak is that we will not be taken in for a moment by deceptive political language if we actually stop to think about it.”

    Precisely! However, it is obvious that the majority of adults are incapable of thinking for themselves, because of their Pavlovian childhood conditioning, as otherwise advertising (like organised religion) would not be so successful in persuading people to desire things that are not ultimately beneficial to them, nor for humanity as a whole. Just one example of this effective brainwashing, are environmentally-destructive (but sweet-smelling) toxic detergents, which the masses – not just the “proles” – buy with impunity.

  32. 32  dogscratcher  January 24, 2007, 10:52 pm 

    I asked you a question over at:

    I have found the answer here, so no need to reply. You may be interested in what Gary Curtis says of your book over at:

  33. 33  Mahendra  October 15, 2007, 8:37 am 


    Your book seems like a must-read. I’m often surprised by how even well-educated, intelligent people succumb to Unspeak.

    My first exposure to the dissection of Unspeak was in Ayn Rand’s Capitalism: An Unknown Ideal. She has analyzed many political unspeaks from “cold war”, “public private partnership”, to McCarthyism”.

    Thank you.

  34. 34  Militant Atheism = Unspeak? : Sean the Blogonaut  December 17, 2008, 8:01 am 

    […] for here for the introductory chapter which explains the concept in greater […]

  35. 35  Attack the Pressure Group, Not ‘Faith’  January 13, 2009, 11:09 pm 

    […] considering it is a linguistic concept is probably right). A useful place to start may be an excerpt from Poole’s book: Why the name Unspeak? It is an attempt to capture the Janus-like nature of […]

  36. 36  ???? ?????? ???? ?????? | ?????  January 4, 2012, 1:13 pm 

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