UK paperback

Too clever

Frank Luntz’s linguistic incompetence

Amoral yoda ((Jon Stewart’s unimprovable description.)) Frank Luntz has written a book, called Words that Work, that’s now out in the UK. Since Luntz, a “language architect” according to the cover blurb, is selling his expertise in language, ((Mr Luntz is styled “Dr. Frank Luntz” on the cover, and the usual caveats apply about someone who is not a physician insisting on his doctorate in public. Luntz’s doctorate is apparently in pol sci.)) I thought it would be illuminating to offer here a few examples of that expertise, in advance of my Guardian notice of the book, which is sadly too short to contain the following fruits:

Most people use the term Orwellian to mean someone who engages in doublespeak, the official language of the totalitarian government in George Orwell’s 1949 novel 1984. (p49)

No! There is Newspeak and doublethink, but no “doublespeak” in Nineteen Eighty-Four. ((See, if you like, the Introduction to Unspeak.))

The original title of this book was Killer Words […] My title was a flop. It was too clever. [Focus group participants] scratched their heads and asked: “Is this book about violence and death?” Or worse yet, “What possibly would compel you to study the words of killers?” (p53)

Too clever, indeed. Or perhaps too stupid? Or maybe, given Luntz’s glee in aiding the cause of obfuscating the realities of global warming, ((See Unspeak, pp42-3. And yes, all these references to Unspeak are intended to prod you into buying it, if you haven’t done so already. (If you have, thanks!) ))Killer Words would have been a splendid title after all.

Occupy — We all know what occupy means today in the twenty-first century. But did you know that five hundred years ago, it was considered a dirty word? It meant to have sexual intercourse, literally, to “take possession of.” Once a taboo word that had all but disappeared from polite language, occupy has become completely innocuous today – unless you’re a tenant who ignores your landlord’s demands to move out. (p57)

Or unless you’re, say, an Iraqi. It’s interesting how deaf Luntz is to negative connotations that have anything to do with Republican policy, isn’t it? Meanwhile, Luntz’s little history lesson is steaming balls. The first recorded sense of “occupy” by the OED in 1325 is the one, still modern, meaning “to keep busy, engage, employ (a person, or the mind, attention, etc”. “Occupy” was also sometimes used to mean to have sex with (a woman) between the 15th and 18th centuries, but it was never “considered a dirty word”; it was never “a taboo word”, and did not “all but disappear from polite language”, since usage of its other senses continued throughout the period. ((See comments #4 and #6 below. It is actually a funnier joke by Shakespeare if Doll Tearsheet is not reporting an actual language shift but complaining hypersensitively about the slightest possibility of double entendre.)) Next:

Napkin – In the United States, you wouldn’t think twice about asking for a napkin in a restaurant. Be careful, though. If it were thirty years ago and you were in Great Britain, asking for a napkin might cause the waiter to laugh at you, thinking you wanted a nappy – the British word for a baby’s diaper. (p58)

WTF? In British English, “napkin” has meant, er, napkin since the 14th century. I’m not aware of this meaning having suddenly disappeared for a while 30 years ago: perhaps some of my more, ah, mature readers can help?

  1. 1  Nick Caldwell  July 4, 2007, 1:36 am 

    Why do Americans think a MD is a ‘real’ doctorate and deserving of the honorific and a PhD isn’t? Isn’t the practice of physicians styling themselves “Dr” a comparatively recent one?

  2. 2  Workshy Fop  July 4, 2007, 9:02 am 

    His usage of ‘occupy’ sounds far more like a polite euphemism than vulgar language. Late c.14/early 15th literature is hardly squeaky clean, is this this the best he could do?

    Is this what the whole book is like? ‘100 years ago, ‘ejaculate’ meant to suddenly declaim – this is very funny when you read Sherlock Holmes, ho ho’.

  3. 3  Guano  July 4, 2007, 11:11 am 

    An older reader writes: I must have been doing something else on the day in 1977 when parents were saying “I think I’ll have to slip out and change Johnie’s napkin”.

  4. 4  Graham Giblin  July 4, 2007, 12:23 pm 

    Etymology Online agrees somewhat with Luntz on ‘occupy’.

    During 16c.-17c. a euphemism for “have sexual intercourse with,” which caused it to fall from polite usage,

    adding a Shakespearian reference:

    “A captaine? Gods light these villaines wil make the word as odious as the word occupy, which was an excellent good worde before it was il sorted.” [Doll Tearsheet in “2 Henry IV”]

    ‘Fop’ – I will never forget the day, when at the age of about 14 and having that morning discovered a new word in some Dickens novel, I exclaimed loudly about something to my mother and father. Quickly seizing the opportunity, and eager to show off my new learning, I said brightly to them, “I just ejaculated!” I didn’t understand at all why they were suddenly so flustered. In my confusion I tried to explain but they didn’t know where to look, probably wondering whether they had left the chat about double-decker roosters [unspeak, or mere euphemism?] a little late…

  5. 5  richard  July 4, 2007, 12:25 pm 

    Why do Americans think a MD is a ‘real’ doctorate and deserving of the honorific and a PhD isn’t?

    I don’t think Steven is an American. Over in England it’s considered a bit declasse to insist too hard on your PhD honorific, simply, I think, as a bit of modesty. Or Bourdieuan one-upmanship: it’s not very U. In America, where there’s less shyness about qualifications, there seems to be more motivation for people to style themselves ‘doctors’ when they are neither MDs nor PhDs. Most of all, though, it’s a question of specificity. The appeal to the title is a gambit for appearing authoritative; that, I think, is what Steven’s refering to – and it’s a very common practice in think tanks and other instruments of propaganda. If a PhD in particle physics wants to weigh in on a matter of medical ethics, does he deserve the cachet in argument that “Dr.” might afford him? If not, why would he insist on using the honorific?

  6. 6  Steven  July 4, 2007, 12:49 pm 

    I’m not sure that taking the word of comic character Doll Tearsheet as a reliable record of language use is a good idea. In any case OED shows that the non-sexual senses continued to be used throughout, so it never became a “taboo” word, eg for sense 1:

    1604 E. GRIMESTON tr. J. de Acosta Nat. & Morall Hist. Indies III. i. 117 Then shall he truly occupie himselfe in the studie of Philosophie. 1633 W. PRYNNE 1st Pt. Histrio-mastix 628 That the minde..might be..occupied in the service of God, in recognizing his benefits. 1739 D. HUME Treat. Human Nature I. II. 68 A man in a sound sleep, or strongly occupy’d with one thought, is insensible of time. 1781 W. COWPER Convers. 57 Whatever subject occupy discourse.

    Or in the sense of occupying land:

    1560 J. DAUS tr. J. Sleidane Comm. 380 You who occupie the chiefest places amongest the States of the Empire. 1602 W. WARNER Albions Eng. (1612) Epit. 355 The Pictes..then occupying those parts which we now call the middle Marches, betwixt the English and Scots. 1755 B. FRANKLIN Observ. conc. Increase Mankind 2 in W. Clarke Observ. French, In countries full settled..all Lands being occupied and improved to the Heighth; those who cannot get Land, must Labour for others that have it.

    Indeed it is clear that “occupy” for “have sex with” came from this sense, still one of the primary senses, of taking possession of land, and that sense never went away.

  7. 7  Jeff Strabone  July 4, 2007, 6:17 pm 

    In the States, scholars with university positions do not add ‘Dr.’ or ‘Ph.D.’ to their names. People who do that, as on book covers and elsewhere, are generally non-academic doctorate-holders who wish to cow the ignorant into belief and obedience.

  8. 8  JCR  July 5, 2007, 12:25 am 

    As for “napkin”, I seem to remember it was a French no-no. Never ask for a napkin in French I think I was told, always a serviette. But my college French classes were many years ago so I may have gotten it wrong.

    As for “Dr” titles, what USA are you living in Mr. Strabone? Ph.D and other doctorates are hard won and people do (and should) use them. It does indicate knowlege in a field, as it is intended to do. Degree holders tend to use their titles in offical ways, not when paying their phone bills, but very few (none?) would replace Dr. with Mr. or Ms. Dr. Luntz, as vilified as he is here, is perfectly entitled to use the title.

    What I find curious is Mr. Poole’s belief that unless you are a physician you aren’t really entitled to call yourself “doctor”. In fact, the heirachical ranking of doctorates places Sc.D.s at the top of the degree pile, Ph.D.s a bit lower, and M.D.s considerably further down the list.

  9. 9  Matt Weiner  July 5, 2007, 12:55 am 

    I think there is some inconsistency in the U.S. about what title academics use with their last name. I’d probably go by Mr. Weiner, but I don’t think Dr. Weiner or Prof. Weiner would be absurd, and most of my academic correspondence gets sent to Prof. Weiner. (In the U.S. almost all permanent appointees can be addressed as “Prof.”; I’m an assistant professor, which is basically the same as a beginning lecturer, I think.)

    BUT, there’s a big difference between going as “Prof./Dr. Weiner” and going as “Dr. Matthew Weiner.” I have never done the latter—”Matthew Weiner” or “Matt Weiner” is fine—and doing the latter (except for M.D.s) strikes me as toolish. Or to put it more precisely, trying too hard to impress. So I think the caveats about “Dr. Frank Luntz” are appropriate.

  10. 10  Steven  July 5, 2007, 1:42 am 

    It’s a question of context. Within a university, I might hear of “Dr John Lennard” or “Dr Teresa Grant”, as it might be, which is perfectly normal; but their books would (do) appear under the names “John Lennard” and “Teresa Grant”.

  11. 11  Jeff Strabone  July 5, 2007, 7:53 am 

    Perhaps examples will demonstrate what I meant.

    Exhibit one is a book entitled Finally!: How to Stop Dating Losers Forever. The cover page shows the author’s name as ‘Anthony Riche, Ph.D.’ According to,

    ‘Anthony Riche, PhD, is a clinical hypnotherapist, motivational speaker, and life coach whose work has helped shape the lives of many.’

    For the record, I have never heard of this book or this author until right now.

    Exhibit two is A History of the Modern Fact: Problems of Knowledge in the Sciences of Wealth and Society by Mary Poovey, my dissertation advisor. This book I know well and recommend to all. The book’s cover does not say ‘Ph.D.’ anywhere, yet Mary definitely has a Ph.D.

    Note that, as I described above, the silly book for the mass audience of desperate advice-seekers announces its author’s Ph.D. as if it were part of his name. The book by the scholar, on the other hand, does not.

    Yes, university faculty, even those without Ph.D.’s, are typically addressed as ‘Professor’ in the States. That was not my point. The question I was addressing was how Ph.D.-holders want their names to appear. People who trumpet their title, either with ‘Dr.’ or ‘Ph.D.’, are often trying to buy themselves extra credibility among the gullible. ‘Dr. Frank Luntz’, as the cover of his new book names him, is the perfect case of such a person.

  12. 12  Jeff Strabone  July 5, 2007, 7:55 am 

    And don’t forget ‘Dr. Phil’ and Dr. Laura’.

  13. 13  Graham Giblin  July 5, 2007, 8:59 am 

    Interestingly, in contrast to the scramble to use one’s “Dr” title as soon as one gains a Bachelor of Medicine/Bachelor of Surgery, specialist surgeons (FRCP, or FRACP etc.) are even more keen to distinguish themselves from ordinary physicians through use the grandiose honorific: “Mister”. Although this is also the Australian way, for some reason it strikes me as being particularly English. [Wikipedia says it derives from the time when surgeons were merely skilled tradesmen and barbers “amputating limbs or removing bladder stones, and learning their skills through apprenticeship. Note that in 1540, the United Barber Surgeons Company, a tradesmen’s guild, was formed by Henry VIII…”]

  14. 14  Steven  July 5, 2007, 1:54 pm 

    Jeff’s examples illustrate perfectly what I was trying to say. Also, let’s not forget the Doctor.

    Meanwhile, on the matter of “Dr” and “Mr” in medicine: this was explained here by the late lamented sw.

    I will be off blogging duty for the next three weeks or so. Keep ’em peeled.

  15. 15  KB Player  July 25, 2007, 8:38 pm 

    The napkin example – is he thinking of U and Non U uses – U uses napkin, non U serviette.

    But I do remember reading an account of an American living in Australia in the 1950’s and being told not to use the word “diaper” as it meant “sanitary pad”.

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