UK paperback


Nearly perfect!

The admirable Mariella Frostrup writes:

I’m thinking of compiling a collection of my favourite euphemisms.

Good idea!

The vogue for them among the chattering classes should guarantee a bestseller

I wish. Anyway, what are some of Mariella’s favourite euphemisms?

‘Extraordinary rendition’ is a joy, particularly because it’s often explained as ‘like ordinary rendition, only extraordinary’. You’ll agree that makes things so much clearer!

I wish I had known that while I was writing the section about “extraordinary rendition” in Unspeak. What a delicious fact, that it is often explained as “like ordinary rendition, only extraordinary”. But hang on, is it really a fact? Who has ever explained it in this way? Google doesn’t know. But probably Mariella has resources that exceed Google’s.

Anyway, the topical example that apparently prompted Mariella’s column is “subprime”:

But zooming into my top 10 is the currently omnipresent ‘sub-prime’. At least in the Nineties, we weren’t afraid to call a slump a slump. While in America a financial tragedy is occurring among the poor, we’ve gripped on to their phrase and are trotting it out, as if it might save us. […] Like ‘comfort zone’, the genius of ‘sub-prime’ is in the fact that it completely fails to evoke the human misery and grim reality it refers to. It’s a skill we are honing to perfection as we evolve, disguising anything in our lives that we find unpalatable.

Well, as far as I can tell, “subprime” isn’t being used as a direct replacement for the word “slump”. But I do think she is on to something. As far as I understand, “subprime” refers to the borrowers, who are considered less reliable profit centres for the banks, and so can be charged more for their mortgages. Actual human beings are thus classified as not “prime” (like sides of beef), but somehow below this level.

But not too far below it! The term “subprime” cleverly avoids the rhetorical admission of too great a risk. Change the prefix to get “non-prime”, or just say “deficient” or “perilous”, and it no longer looks like a very good idea at all. An alternative usage is “near-prime”, the existence of which term tends to confirm the suspicion. Keep the shiny concept of “prime” centre stage, and just qualify it a little bit, indeed to the smallest extent possible. Does it look like you are trying rhetorically to minimize the risk, in the same way as the loans themselves were apparently wrapped up in highly complex financial instruments so that no one was quite sure of the possible downside they represented? Well, I think there is a good case for considering “subprime” to be Unspeak.

What other euphemisms does Mariella espy?

Friendly fire, sub-prime, ethnic cleansing, even global warming with its suggestion of balmy days ahead represent the ultimate in spin.

“Ethnic cleansing”, as readers will know, is heavily discussed in Unspeak; and “friendly fire” has made an appearance here before. As for “global warming” — well, as I show in Unspeak, it is “climate change” that was chosen as the “spin” replacement for “global warming” by the US, Saudi Arabia and other countries during UN negotiations in the late 1980s. It’s true that, on the other hand, some people think that “global warming” is not frightening enough as a term, so we can perhaps say that Mariella is half-right — or, maybe, that her analysis is subprime: not ideal, but surely worth taking a punt on.

  1. 1  redpesto  January 21, 2008, 12:47 pm 

    PS: Steven – have you picked up on Milliband’s ‘hub’ metaphor yet?

  2. 2  Jasper Milvain  January 21, 2008, 1:16 pm 

    The twist, I thought, is that “prime” itself is no longer necessarily that good a rating: a low credit risk will be described as “prime plus” or (preferably) “superprime”. It’s like that old system for the classification of temporary teachers: five levels, the lowest of which was “satisfactory”.

  3. 3  Steven  January 21, 2008, 1:48 pm 

    That is a nice twist – thanks!

  4. 4  georgesdelatour  January 21, 2008, 6:16 pm 

    I haven’t read “Unspeak” yet. I’ll buy it, promise. But I agree, “climate change” is a pointless phrase. As opposed to what? Climate stasis?

  5. 5  Lloyd Mintern  January 22, 2008, 12:38 am 

    The language is rioting.

  6. 6  Neil  January 22, 2008, 8:48 am 

    Could we start calling it ‘unterprime’, just to be provocative?

  7. 7  Chris Lloyd  January 22, 2008, 10:01 am 

    SP said: “I think there is a good case for considering `sub-prime’ to be Unspeak.”

    At last! Over the past 10 days, as the ‘market correction’ has unfolded, and the folly of the `financial engineers’ has been revealed, I have been visiting this site daily awaiting the launch of some SP torpedoes.

    Finance is full of value laden terms that in aggregate form an entire language of Unspeak. Consider the following list of financial terms and the images they conjure: `assurance’, `bond’, `credit’, `consolidation’, `equity’, `interest’, ‘mutual’, ‘market’, `redemption’, `reconciliation’, ‘security’, `trust’, ‘venture’. And the greatest of these was ‘efficient market hypothesis’ as Unspeak for complete bloody randomness.

  8. 8  Steven  January 22, 2008, 11:38 am 

    Hi Chris,
    There is some commentary on that subject in Chapter 8 of Unspeak, with reference particularly to the work of Quentin Skinner, who, as I briefly summarize, “has shown that the newly emerging business class in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England made deliberate raids on the language of virtue in order to render their own operations respectable” (p204). But I haven’t addressed all your examples in detail, so might do in future: thanks for the suggestions.

    Neil: nice.

  9. 9  dsquared  January 22, 2008, 1:01 pm 

    [At least in the Nineties, we weren’t afraid to call a slump a slump]

    actually, a “recession”, which was a word specifically coined because it was felt that “depression” sounded too depressing.

    In a lot of the cases above, btw, I think it’s a lot more ambiguous. For “Credit” (the extent to which you believe someone will pay you back), I am pretty sure that the value-judgement is parasitical on the business sense rather than vice versa.

    I am not sure that this euphemism rises to the level of Unspeak, though – “sub-prime” isn’t disguising the fact that the assets are not of prime quality, although “near-prime” is having a go. Of course, when you package subprime assets up, then you create bonds which are “high-yield” (“high-yield” being the opposite of “investment grade”, natch – that’s why they have to pay such a high yield). And if you don’t like those, there are always the “emerging markets” (defined as “a market from which it is difficult to emerge in an emergency”).

  10. 10  Steven  January 22, 2008, 1:52 pm 

    For “Credit” (the extent to which you believe someone will pay you back), I am pretty sure that the value-judgement is parasitical on the business sense rather than vice versa.

    Well, as I check it again, I see it’s a dead heat according to OED, the earliest citations of credit meaning generally “belief” or “trustworthiness” and in the specifically financial sense both coming in 1542/3. Of course the word must have been used before then, so the question is hard to settle. It would, though, seem more logical to me that credit from credere would have had a general sense of trust, confidence etc before it had the specific financial sense. Certainly the Englished use of the Latin credo, from which one would expect “credit” then to have been formed, long predates the C16. (OED says 1175.) But I should probably soften the certainty of my claim about it on p.205.

    I like “high-yield” and “emerging markets” – thanks!

  11. 11  Ian Cresswell  January 22, 2008, 7:22 pm 

    Hi Steven

    Have you considered any changes to future editions of Unspeak on the subject of ethnic cleansing to take into account the ICJ judgement of February 2007 as well as the Krajisnik judgement at the ICTY?

  12. 12  Steven  January 22, 2008, 7:37 pm 

    What changes do you suppose those judgments might warrant?

  13. 13  Ian Cresswell  January 23, 2008, 6:57 pm 

    Well, both judgements have lengthy sections on whether ethnic cleansing is the same thing as genocide and both conclude that it is not.

    Given that, I think its debatable whether ethnic cleansing is a euphemism for genocide.

    It’s a complicated subject, and they are closely interrelated. You can still make a strong case that they are the same thing and that the perpetrators perceived it as such. For example the Mladic quote here, from the RS assembly minutes dated 16th May 1992 headed “complete cleansing of all non Serbs would be genocide”

    I just wondered if you felt it worth adding to the section for the next edition.

  14. 14  Steven  January 23, 2008, 10:17 pm 

    Yes, I had a discussion with dsquared about that at Crooked Timber a while ago, in which we both cheerfully agreed we were not lawyers. My view is that “cleansing” in Mladic’s terms doesn’t have to be “complete” to count as genocide, since the Convention has the specific language “in whole or in part”. (The dissenting opinion of the VP of ICJ disagrees specifically on this finding of a difference.)

    I might mention it if there ever is another edition. ;)

  15. 15  belle le triste  January 24, 2008, 2:59 am 

    there’s a nice passage in j.k. galbraith’s “money: whence it came and where it went” which traces the [hitchens-petword alert] declension of the excellently exact 19th century word PANIC through depression and recession all the way up to — i guess in the 1970s, i forget when the book came out — “growth adjustment”: each euphemism in its turn, as he puts it, “tainted by the reality it seeks to disguise” (well, something like this: the book’s on a high shelf in a room where the bulb has gone)

  16. 16  sam.the.pantisocratist  January 24, 2008, 12:53 pm 

    Of course the explanation for ‘subprime’ could be far more prosaic & innocuous.
    As a bit of financial jargon it has been around for a long time & may serve no purpose at all other than to make its speaker seem the more knowledgeable (anyone who has been there knows what I’m talking about). Few in the wider world would have been familiar with the term until quite recently but many a pundit has been hasty in adopting the term perhaps for much the same reason – that it makes them look like they know what they’re talking about. Haven’t we all been guilty of that I wonder? Still as a candidate for unspeak it may be something of a red-herring. And this brings me to my cautionary note. That we can get a bit carried away with our unspeak-spotting rather as evolutionary biologists can get carried away with their natural selection-spotting – even to the point where the spots on a guppy take on a profound meaning.

    To illustrate my point consider the recent upsurge in violence in the Gaza strip. The media coverage in the west of the events unfolding in Gaza have been sparse but not non-existent. But in all the coverage I have encountered whilst the factual content has been accurate enough & the stories have been happily free of unspeak they nonetheless can be classed as a form of media disinformation. And they do this primarily through omission. All the stories for example refers to Israel responding to an ‘upsurge in Hamas rocket-fire since Tuesday’ or, alternatively, ‘Hamas militants have fired over 150 Qassam rockets since Tuesday’. The Tuesday being referred to is Tuesday 15th January 2008. Omitted in all the stories is the two-month long ceasefire by Hamas broken on the Tuesday in question by an Israeli military incursion into Gaza City which left 18 Palestinians dead & another 48 injured. Mahmoud Abbas made the following outraged comments: “What happened today is a massacre, a slaughter against the Palestinian people. Our people cannot keep silent over these massacres. These massacres cannot bring peace.”

    We may summarise the spin of the story with the omission as: Israel responds, in defence of its borders, to Hamas rocket fire with the closure of its borders & retaliatory air-strikes (albeit a little too robustly for some tastes).
    Or we may summarise the spin of the story without the omission as: Hamas responds with some justification to a deadly military incursion into its territory with a barrage of home-made rocket fire (albeit a little too indiscriminately for some tastes).

    Clearly with the omission the story takes on a very different hue & our sympathies are much more likely to lie with the Israelis. Is this lying by omission? Has the media crossed the line from informing public opinion to shaping public opinion? And more importantly is the use of unspeak only a relatively small sub-category of the general category of media disinformation? And is media disinformation itself a sub-category of a much wider category that we might for the sake of simplicity call ‘bullshit’?

    Interesting questions perhaps but my point remains. Has Ms Frostrup spotted in her own clumsy way a bit of genuine unspeak? For the two million or so Americans losing their homes it is probably not a matter uppermost in their minds. For us, however, perhaps the question should be – are we turning into the internet-equivalent of trainspotters only in our case we are unspeak-spotters? Are we in fact & in effect a debating club aboard the Titanic pre-occupied with seating arrangements? I would respectively suggest that these are not trivial questions & that we should be as ready to criticise ourselves as we are to criticise others. The path to enlightenment is a rocky one.

    O and by the way, Galbraith is a wanker.

  17. 17  dsquared  January 24, 2008, 1:29 pm 

    here’s the CT discussion Steven refers to if any cares.

    There almost needs to be a category of “Re-Speak” for phrases like “recession” and “ethnic cleansing” (and “Decent Left”, but that’s more of a personal hobbyhorse), which started out as Unspeak but which have been so inescapably “tainted by the reality they seek to disguise” that they’re now pretty much as bad things to call something as “depression” and “genocide”

  18. 18  Steven  January 24, 2008, 2:08 pm 

    There almost needs to be a category of “Re-Speak” for phrases like “recession” and “ethnic cleansing” (and “Decent Left”, but that’s more of a personal hobbyhorse), which started out as Unspeak but which have been so inescapably “tainted by the reality they seek to disguise” that they’re now pretty much as bad things to call something as “depression” and “genocide”

    Yes! I like “Re-Speak”. Also true eg of “concentration camp” and, of course, “Final Solution”, both of which long ago lost whatever power of euphemism they originally had. I think or perhaps hope that the same process might be happening currently with things like “collateral damage”.

    Sam: see eg Lull, Truce & Disproportionate.

    And more importantly is the use of unspeak only a relatively small sub-category of the general category of media disinformation?

    Well, of course it is.

    are we turning into the internet-equivalent of trainspotters only in our case we are unspeak-spotters? Are we in fact & in effect a debating club aboard the Titanic pre-occupied with seating arrangements?

    I can hardly deny that I have merely written a book and some blog posts instead of reshaping the contemporary media industry with my bare hands. Perhaps you have a better strategic proposal?

  19. 19  abb1  January 24, 2008, 3:01 pm 

    Well, when an unspeak phrase becomes ineffective it’s replaced by another unspeak. George Carlin in one of his shows describes ‘shell shock’ turned into ‘battle fatigue’ to ‘operational exhaustion’ to ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’.

  20. 20  sam.the.pantisocratist  January 24, 2008, 3:07 pm 

    Is anyone up for just going off & living in a community then? I don’t know about you but I’ve had enough of living in this post-enlightenment mega-industrial planet-devouring bollocks-up called free market capitalism. Consume, consume, consume & we all get more miserable, nature retreats ever more, & we turn possibly the universe’s most miraculous creation into a meticulously landscaped toilet. This is the dream we have been sold & it’s all a gadawful lie. A strategy for small-scale, community-based, sustainably structured living may not be utopia but it can’t be any worse than this. Now come on you folks – wake up dammit! If we take on GAIA and try to subjugate it as we have done everything else – WELL THERE CAN ONLY BE ONE LOSER.

  21. 21  Steven  January 24, 2008, 3:36 pm 

    Not necessarily, if we have Chuck Norris on our side.

  22. 22  abb1  January 24, 2008, 5:11 pm 

    Like my grandma used to say: whatever happens, it’s all for the best.

  23. 23  Gavin  January 24, 2008, 6:39 pm 

    Isn’t that what Doctor Pangloss said too?

  24. 24  Andrew Bartlett  January 24, 2008, 9:47 pm 

    George Carlin – Jammin’ in New York (1992). Brilliant. I watched that sketch just the other day and thought of this blog.

  25. 25  sam.the.pantisocratist  January 24, 2008, 10:10 pm 

    Personally I don’t think much of Chuck. Didn’t Bruce whup his ass?

    Wherever your grandma may belong I’m sure she does not belong in this discussion. Please if you’re not going to make a sensible contribution to the debate bugger off to the Guardian blog where no doubt your ribaldry will be much appreciated. It is certainly not welcome here – and I think Steven will back me up on this one.

    Perhaps you are only in the first year so for you philosophy begins with Descartes and ends with Voltaire. Too often it seems on this blog modernity is vaunted like some ghastly Hogarthian harlot. Really you know there have been some philosophical developments since then. By the way that stuff about Gould being a panglossian is a foul slur probably put about by that Dawkins bloke – a typical Nazi trick if you ask me.

  26. 26  Steven  January 24, 2008, 10:38 pm 

    Er, Sam, abb1’s been around here a lot longer than you. It’s not really your place to tell him or her to bugger off.

    Too often it seems on this blog modernity is vaunted like some ghastly Hogarthian harlot.


  27. 27  sam.the.pantisocratist  January 24, 2008, 10:53 pm 

    Steven surely length of service however loyal is not an issue to the impartial moderator – if her or his ass needs moderating then moderate and be damned I say.

    WDM – WTF?

  28. 28  Steven  January 24, 2008, 11:49 pm 

    I suspect you are yet another fictionsuit of Paul Ward.

  29. 29  Paul Ward  January 25, 2008, 1:35 am 

    Hmmm. Development as neguentropy.

    ‘Development is not an invention of human beings. Human beings are an invention of development’

    Thus in Jurgen Habermas’ ‘Modernity – an Incomplete project’ the foremost ‘modern’ philosopher of the age becomes the unwitting mid-wife paradoxically of a new intellectual terrain.

    Truly we are at the end of an age & at the beginning of a new one. It may not be one dominated by humans. But GAIA theory elevates human beings to the status of slime mould. Which is fair enough. After all is it not the modern’s judeo-christian hang-over that perpetuates the myth of human primacy. We’re not that special; we’re just another species on this planet. And, for GAIA, we’re just as dispensable.

    I am only telling you this for your own good yer darned popsy.
    Hell it’s hard when no-one appreciates what you’ve got to say.

  30. 30  richard  January 25, 2008, 3:02 pm 

    Wait, I’m losing track of the sock puppets here – is there really a Paul Ward?

  31. 31  John Fallhammer  January 25, 2008, 4:21 pm 

    1. Chuck Norris seems to be on Mike Huckabee’s side at the moment.

    2. The couple of times I’ve read Frostrup’s columns they’ve been quite awful. Is she ever good and insightful?

    3. What serves as gin for the ghastly harlot of modernity?

  32. 32  Paul Ward  January 25, 2008, 9:46 pm 

    [deleted by moderator]

  33. 33  hey zeus  January 25, 2008, 10:39 pm 

    my Lit teacher was called Paul Ward, but he wrote poetry and played a mean jazz keyboard. Mr Ward, i think i understood you better with a corner of A4 in my mouth. you were more, well, moderate back then.

    how’s that for unrelated ribaldry? broo-hahaha

  34. 34  Gavin  January 26, 2008, 10:50 am 

    Sorry Sam,

    I am a bit confused. I’ve checked the dictionary. Philosophy begins with a ‘P’ and ends with a ‘Y’. In English anyway.

    I don’t remember writing anything about Gould.

    Lucky for me that the blog exists, and I don’t have to remember becuase the copy is above, and there is nothing about Gould.

    Gaia will be fine no matter what we do, that seems to be the problem with the theory as far as I can see, She would be better off without humans. Especially when all they do is insult one another and get angry with one another.

    I think you should take Socrates’ pants off your head, they seem to be overheating your brain.

    Must go, mum says its time to have dinner.

  35. 35  Alex Higgins  January 26, 2008, 11:46 pm 

    “Naturally I took the offending item over to the woman in customer services who just shrugged helplessly. …”

    Was anyone else moved with pity for that woman when they read that? :0)

  36. 36  Lars  February 7, 2008, 12:13 am 

    To my knowledge, sub-prime refers to the practice of offer a mortgage at a sup-prime interest rate (where the prime-rate is understood as what colloquially might be called the “going rate) for an introductory period after which the interest rate balloons to at-or-above the prime rate.

    So, millions of people were able to get mortgages for amounts far above their ability to pay because for an enticing introductory period they didn’t have to really pay much for the borrowing (because their interest rate would likely be somewhere between 0-3%), only to find themselves unable to pay once the rate increased to 6,7 or 8 percent after 3-5 years.

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