‘Expert commentary’ on a volatile, contentious process
I was somewhat bemused to be asked, as a linguist and someone who has written about government communications and messaging, to comment recently, this time on the self-presentation of the candidates vying for leadership of the Conservative Party, hence also for the role of Prime Minister of the UK (in a series of back-and-forth slurs and clumsily staged photo-opportunities characterised today by Cabinet Office Minister Johnny Mercer as ‘puerile’). My first observations concerned Foreign Secretary Liz Truss’s identification with an earlier political icon.*
These were my comments in answer to the Daily Mail‘s questions on the performance of Lizz Truss and Rishi Sunak in the latest and final stages of the contest…
Both candidates seem to me to be reaching for very simple and basic images and messages – not complex or ‘deeper’ concepts and as a linguist I suspect that they are both trying to avoid having to demonstrate the ‘oratorical’ skills that Boris Johnson’s supporters claimed for him. In other words they are going for visual over verbal as neither of them is renowned as an inspiring public speaker.
In terms of oratorical skills or lack of them Liz Truss has been gaffe-prone and can come across as hesitant while Rishi Sunak, though articulate, has to avoid the impression of an over-eager schoolboy in his attempts to convince.
In terms of the core messages, Rishi Sunak is very obviously trying to counter the sense of him as someone removed from the concerns of ordinary people because of his privileged upbringing and his great wealth. Thus he emphasises the (quite authentic) role of the family man, devoted to wife and children, at the same time countering Truss’s projection of herself as an assertive ‘lone’ female – the image Margaret Thatcher conveyed in her exercising dominance over male colleagues. Thatcher also kept husband and children in the background and emphasised her own gravitas and steeliness above all else.
Pulling pints is another attempt by Sunak to demonstrate that he is not wholly out of touch with the ‘common man’, but this sort of posing does risk backfiring as when he fumbled in his attempts to use a bank debit card to buy fuel for a humble, borrowed car.
I’m surprised that Sunak does not more strongly emphasise his financial background and expertise gained as a financier/fund manager (the sort of professional experience that Liz Truss would have trouble competing with), but he may rightly sense that public perceptions of hedge fund manipulators are far from entirely positive.
Both candidates are attempting to focus, as they must, on the universally understandable issues of taxation and immigration/refugee management, subjects on which those entitled to vote for them (a very small number of key individuals incidentally) are already likely to have very firm views.
I added the following…
I don’t wish to seem contentious or uncharitable, but their messaging – in both cases – really does leave much to be desired, beginning with the campaign slogans, ‘Ready for Rishi!’ and ‘Liz for Leader.’
On Rishi Sunak’s part, his public postures belie the fact that he is, among many other things, a teetotaller…
And as for Ms Truss…
Which approach, I was asked, was likely to play out better with the 1600 party members entitled to vote in the leadership contest?
I think it’s very difficult to predict: I suspect that many Tories will still instinctively prefer the certainty and strength of purpose that Margaret Thatcher represented – the steely glare rather than the eager-to-please smile. But perhaps on reflection they may come to decide that someone at ease with financial manipulations (public or private!), and someone who is not really encumbered with ideological baggage could be more convincing in the long run and a safer pair of hands? It’s perhaps reassuring and worth noting that those two ancient bugbears of British political life, ethnicity and gender, probably are no longer barriers to advancement.
This is how my remarks were incorporated into the Mail’s front page of July 25 2022…
– Jon Birch, channelling Turing and repurposing the Enigma machine
The UK government’s handling of the information transfer required in a national emergency has differed significantly from the strategies employed in other states. While Donald Trump has used the White House ‘pressers’ to expound a bewildering sequence of personal claims, accusations and commentaries, and Angela Merkel has favoured occasional official announcements via mainstream and social media, the government at Westminster has relied on daily televised briefings to keep the public informed of progress in combatting the pandemic and to advise on regulations and desirable behaviour.
After more than two months there has been a chance to reflect on the official recommendations and diktats and to assess their consistence and credibility. It is not clear exactly who is responsible for the drafting of messages or the invention of rallying cries and slogans. The ‘comms’ (communications, including information dissemination and public relations) team probably consists of activists involved in the Brexit Vote Leave campaign, ‘spads’ (unelected special advisors to ministers and the cabinet), spin-doctors and civil service speechwriters from relevant departments, (oversight by the GCS – Government Communication Service – is unconfirmed) *. With an admixture of improvisations by the prime minister and cabinet members, the UK comms have been, in the view of many, a disaster.**
The details, including key statistics, have changed and mutated (at the end of June the two-metre social distancing rule was replaced by Boris Johnson’s advice to switch to ‘one metre plus’), the tactical positions adopted have pivoted and stalled, the advice has often been bewildering or contradictory. Underlying themes may have shown more consistency, but consistency can describe a dependency on metaphors which may be unhelpful or confusing – above all the reframing of attempts to contain and overcome the virus as a ‘war’, with ‘heroes’, ‘non-combatants’ and hapless, tragic victims*** – the virus itself personified as an ‘invisible mugger’ who can be ‘wrestled to the floor’ by ‘have a go’ heroism.
With no other way of influencing events experts and non-specialists have taken to social media to critique and mock the successive claims. Professor Elena Semino declared herself ‘puzzled that the UK Prime Minister keeps referring to his government’s covid-related policies as ‘putting our arms around the public’, adding ‘Embodied simulation would be uncomfortable at the best of times, but now?!?’ Manchester Professor of Government Colin Talbot countered a succession of official claims on Twitter:
We need more testing. We’ll do 100,000 tests a day. You’re failing to do that. We’ll do 200,000 tests a day. We need to track and trace. We’ll have an app to do that. It not working We’ll set up a service to do that You haven’t
We’ll set up a world beating…
It is not only the verbal cues and rhetorical devices that have been deployed to manipulate, to confuse and to evade, but the visual signals, displays and symbology used, consciously or not, to influence and convince.****
– Alex Andreou, on the ‘Stay Alert’ slogan
In a short interview last week I offered my own take on the evolution of covid-related language (as detailed in my two previous posts on this site) and a duty for linguists to become involved in scrutinising, clarifying and where necessary criticising the content of the present infodemic…
As was the case in the national conversation on Brexit the transmission and reception of official messages has been complicated by the role of some MSM (mainstream media) representatives, derided by their critics as ‘client journalists’, ‘courtier journalists’ and ‘stenographers’, in uncritically passing on information, seeming actively to endorse or promote the government line and failing to hold obfuscators or outright liars to account. This will be the subject of an upcoming article on this site.
*** linguists, among them my colleagues at King’s College London, have now begun to analyse the deeper implications of the figurative language employed in official discourse. I will be posting their findings once they become available. Here is one such report, from an Australian perspective…
A perhaps minor example of injudicious choice of words, and conflicting nuances of meaning and connotation, in July 2020. The bilateral travel agreements between states opening borders after lockdown were described by the UK government as air bridges. This term had until now more usually referred to a covered passage by which travellers can pass from an airport building to an aircraft. In more difficult times it had denoted a connection by air between locations divided by sea or by foreign occupation. It is just possible, too, that the phrase might prompt memories of the very expensive, ultimately abandoned ‘garden bridge’ proposed by PM Boris Johnson for the Thames in London, or even the fantasies alluded to by ‘castles in the air’. In the event two different lists of permitted connections were published by the government leading to angry confusion on the part of travellers, airlines and the tourist industry. Led I think by the Foreign Office, from July 3rd official messaging quietly began to substitute the more literal designation international travel corridors.
On July 13 the government launched a new publicity campaign designed to inform businesses and the public on how travel will change after Brexit. Their latest gnomic slogan ‘Check, Change, Go’ and jargon formulations such as ‘field force team’ (for one-to-one telephone consultations) provoked widespread disbelief and mockery on social media, and puzzled consternation from exporters, importers and others. The spoof newspaper the Daily Mash commented (rudely and irreverently)…
Later the same day erstwhile Tory-supporting Daily Mailjournalist Dan Hodges tweeted: ‘Got to be honest, I’ve no idea what Government guidance is on anything any more. Masks. Distancing. Numbers of friends you can meet. When and where you can meet them. Going back to work. None of it. Clear Ministers have basically given up on trying to agree a coherent line.’
Philip Seargeant of the Open University, with whom I have collaborated, has written here on the contradiction between populist narratives and the kind of communications required to manage a crisis such as the pandemic…
…in September I was going to update this page with comments on the latest government initiatives, but Imogen West-Knights beat me to it with this Guardian piece (which mentions the ludicrously named ‘Op Moonshot’ project)…
Pivoting and reassessments, rumours of upcoming changes and irregular official announcements continued through the autumn into the winter. Having introduced a system of three tiered categories of local restrictions the government announced a relaxing over the five days of Christmas festivities, then on 19 December leaks via obscure social media accounts suggested the placing of London into a new Tier 4, prompting irreverent comment on Twitter…
From Jonathan Nunn: “imagine inventing a tier system that divides the entire spectrum of conceivable events into three distinct categories, only to make a new tier to describe the unforeseen way you’ve fucked it”
From Piers Morgan: “We’re now at the stage of this pandemic where it’s safe to assume with 100% certainty that whatever Boris ‘U-turn’ Johnson promises about anything actually means the complete opposite will happen.”
From Becca Magnus: “Ah the good old days of waiting for press conferences while obsessively refreshing Twitter. Takes me back all those years ago to March.”
The new stipulations meant that in London and the South East four different Covid restriction policies had been imposed in 4 weeks…
In January 2021, after more shifts and a last-minute volte-face, a new ‘tier 5’ nationwide lockdown was imposed. The Prime Minister’s briefings announcing this and other reverses and innovations were mocked in posts circulating on social media…
Also in January 2021 theGuardian offered a rare insight into the personalities involved, the prevailing ethos and the strategies pursued by the UK government in their attempts to manage communications…
In February 2021 this video (I’m not sure of the exact provenance) dramatising the government’s pivoting and conflicting advice was circulating on social media…
In February 2021 there was much debate, on Twitter and elsewhere, of the government’s roadmap out of lockdown, of what exactly a roadmap is and how it might differ from a plan. Roadmaps (the most influential probably being Donald Rumsfeld’s pathway out of the Middle East imbroglios in 2003) are used in corporate strategy, usually as statements of a series of achievements to be aimed for, without waystage dates or details, but that is not the point: ‘roadmap’ is a buzzword evoking a way ahead, a potential route and an intention to travel, all reassuring for those who are lost, adrift or stalled.
Many specialists and members of the public, too, were aghast at the government’s rhetoric around the notion of ‘Freedom Day’, a more or less complete, and overnight relaxation of protective restrictions proposed for July 19. The consistency of the chosen keywords characteristically began to unravel, as Professor Alice Roberts noted on July 11, ‘What does this actually mean? Is vigilant this year’s “alert”? How does vigilance help protect against an airborne virus when a government is not recommending and supporting effective mitigations…’ and Guardian journalist Sirin Kale commented two days later (quoted with her permission), ‘I see the government is trying to row back their Freedom Day messaging at the 11th hour just 2 weeks after senior ministers briefed they wouldn’t be wearing masks indoors any more. You’d think they’d have learned the dangers of conflicting messages after the Xmas fiasco but nope’
In September 2021, following revelations by government aide Dominic Cummings of his employers’ vacillation and incompetence, a second ousted advisor, Lee Cain, broke silence to excoriate the teams working on communications during the pandemic:
In the autumn of 2021 the public became aware of a ‘Plan B’, supposedly to be implemented in the event of a new surge (which was already, some said, happening). The exact details of this plan were not specified in any official communications and the press and public were left to speculate. A few new restrictions were introduced in late November, perhaps prompted by concern at still rising infection rates in schools and elsewhere, though ventilation in schools was not among them, then in the second week of December, as the Omicron variant spread to general alarm, Plans ‘C’ and ‘D’ implying successively stricter moves towards a lockdown were mooted. On 12 December emergency measures (presumed to be a version of Plan B) focusing on encouraging the takeup of booster shots were announced. On Twitter the next morning Russ Jones commented, ‘Plan B was drawn up 5 months ago. That’s how long they’ve had to plan for it. They gave the NHS 4 hours warning that they’d need to do 1 million tests a day, the booking website crashed cos nobody thought to upgrade it, and we ran out of lateral flow tests within 3 hours.’
“During the Vietnam War, every respectable artist in this country was against the war. It was like a laser beam. We were all aimed in the same direction. The power of this weapon turns out to be that of a custard pie dropped from a stepladder six feet high.” -Kurt Vonnegut
This morning, 31 January 2020, official date of the UK’s departure from the EU, the agitprop group Led by Donkeys projected on to the white cliffs of Dover a message from the UK to its European neighbours…
The group had been active since the Brexit referendum, erecting billboards across the UK replaying the messages of pro-Brexit and populist politicians. Led by Donkeys scores precisely because it doesn’t employ wit or wordplay, or Banksy‘s admittedly striking visual epigrams, but simply replicates and reminds us of the messages it thinks we should beware of…
In the UK the recent language of protest, on placards in particular or in graffiti, has tended to employ irony, sarcasm, flippancy, facetiousness, to get its messages across by way of puns and cultural allusions…
Invective, banter and wit are mainstays of the British national conversation, irreverence and unseriousness is a default, obligatory style of private and public discourse…
The signing and symbology featuring in public demonstrations, and the debates taking place in public spaces is social media IRL; the slogans and quips on display are Twitter come to the streets…
The tactics used by Led by Donkeys rather recalls the media manipulations advocated and practised by activists in the 1960s. By way of detournementthe Situationists pioneered the hijacking of the multimodal spectacle projected – or inflicted – by capitalism, appropriating and reworking words and images and turning it against its creators…
…and in later anti-capitalist subversions employing the strategies known as culture-jamming, ad-jamming, ad-busting or subvertising…
The street protestors’ placards, for all their wit, wisdom and wrath, have been dismissed by some as self-indulgent, harmless venting and ultimately ineffective. The rightists’ dismissals are perhaps to be expected…
All these protest styles and strategies are part of a rich and complex tradition which I have only touched upon in this short post. I will shortly add some, hopefully more detailed and more profound observations on the subject on this site, together with a visual history which I hope to incorporate in an upcoming broadcast…
Today’s projection by Led by Donkeys differs from their static hoardings in using an original filmed recording of war veterans, and in adding a poignant final message in what looks like a heartfelt personal coda…
It does however appropriate a pro-Brexit trope, as well as an iconic setting, substituting real warriors for Brexiteer nostalgia and for what the left derides as ‘airfix patriotism’ -the false memories and imaginary heroism of those who cannot remember or have never studied the real British past.
In June 2020 the Open University made available its short film on the Language of Protest, accompanied by an essay by Dr Philip Seargeant on the same subject…
Here, with his kind permission, is Philip’s article, updating the topic for an audience still undergoing pandemic restrictions…
My project to create a glossary of Brexitspeak and the toxic terminology of Trumpism and populism* has thankfully attracted media attention and contributions from many specialists, writers and members of the wider public. I am very grateful and absolutely delighted to reproduce here the lexicon compiled by students on the MA in Translation and Professional Language Skills Programme 2019-20 at the University of Bath and their teacher Teresa Lander…
Their glossary not only brings together some of the latest expressions thrown up by rancorous, divisive debate, but adds a multilingual element, including as it does Brexit-related slang from neighbouring languages…
Glossary of slang terms/insults regarding Brexit
“The resulting conversational punishment received when disagreeing with a supporter of the [B]rexit movement”
“A person who is outraged and frustrated over the result of the European Union membership referendum in the United Kingdom which the vote took place on the 23rd of June of 2016 and relies on protests against the UK government and for the EU to prevent Brexit”.
“British prime minister Theresa May called a snap election in April 2017 saying the UK needed a “strong and stable” government because of Brexit. It is an expression she would live to regret after she lost her majority and was forced to rely on the Democratic Unionist Party to prop up her minority government”
‘Ministropad’ (no translation) – “a cascade of ministerial resignations,” (Rosenburg, 2018). “The term literally translates as “ministerfall.” Styled after the Russian word for “waterfall” (vodopad), it swaps out “water” (voda) for “minister” (ministr)”.
‘Un brexit salvaje’/’un brexit a las bravas’/’un brexit por las malas’ (a wild Brexit/a Brexit by force/a crooked Brexit) – referring to a no-deal scenario, a contrast to the less positive spin than English terms such as a ‘clean break’ Brexit
‘Una vacuna contra el euroescepticismo’ (a vaccine against euroscepticism) – referring to the difficulty and mishandling of the Brexit process, that has caused support for outright leaving the EU to sink according to opinion polls in other member states
‘Le Royaume-Désuni’ (divided kingdom) – a play on words of the French term ‘le Royaume-Uni’ (United Kingdom) – used in the context of Brexit to refer to the way in which it has severely divided the UK population and threatened the overall unity of the country, particularly in relation to Ireland and Scotland.
‘brexit’ (common noun – lower case ‘b’) – a tongue-in-cheek term proposed by French journalist Bernard Pivot, resulting from the Brexit strife, that would be used to signify any row, debate, negotiation or meeting that proves insoluble and shambolic. (e.g. l’assemblée des copropriétaires s’est achevée en brexit.)
‘Quel brexit!’ (alternative to ‘quel bordel’ – ‘what a shambles/mess!’) – a very tongue-in-cheek term proposed by French natives in response to Bernard Pivot’s ‘brexit’. In this instance, ‘brexit’ would convey the same meaning as French term ‘bordel’, meaning ‘shambles’ or ‘mess’, and would be used in any shambolic situation.
‘Le bateau ivre’ (term originating from a poem by Arthur Rimbaud relating to the drifting and sinking of a boat lost at sea) – used metaphorically in the context of Brexit to refer to its lack of direction and absence of satisfactory leadership.
“Les partisans du Brexit ont réduit le Royaume-Uni à l’état de bateau ivre, sans cap ni capitaine.”
Today, we are told, is ‘Super Saturday’: not the last Saturday before Christmas, a bumper time for retailers, but an extraordinary weekend sitting of the UK parliament, only the third since the outbreak of World War 2 and this time to debate what one commentator has risked dubbing the ‘Brexit Moment’. Connoisseurs of new and exotic language can add to Super Saturday and Brexit Moment a pair of novel expressions trending in the same context: ‘greased piglet’ was the epithet bestowed by former PM David Cameron on his successor, explaining that ‘the thing about the greased piglet is that he manages to slip through other people’s hands where mere mortals fail.’ The piglet himself appealed this morning for our ‘better angels’ to heal divisions (and do his bidding), a slightly puzzling evocation of Abraham Lincoln’s ringing words: ‘We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.’
To accompany this morning’s unfolding developments RTE Radio asked me to record a commentary on these and other language innovations for their Irish listeners, and this is what I said…
In struggling to keep abreast of the momentous events, the dramatic political developments generated recently by populism on both sides of the Atlantic, we have all of us had to contend, too, with a rising tide of new language – exotic and unfamiliar new terms, old terms repurposed and weaponised, slang, jargon, catchphrases and slogans coming at us on a scale and at a speed not seen before in my lifetime.
I have been collecting the language of Trumpism, of Brexit and of the new alignments in politics, society and the media. I’m doing this because, as a linguist and a dictionary-maker it’s my responsibility not only to record but to make sense of new language, not only looking at its simple definitions but at its deeper, sometimes hidden implications and the hidden agendas and real intentions of the people who are using it.
I’m compiling what I call a glossary of the toxic terminology of populism*, a list of over 400 words and expressions which is growing by the day. Just a few moments ago I added the phrase ‘mediaeval methods’, a euphemism for torture used yesterday by the UK government to describe what they intend to apply to get MPs to back their latest Brexit deal.
George Orwell long ago exposed the twisting of truth and the hypocrisies of political language, but he was living in a much much simpler world. The language I am working with – novel notions like the Backstop, new idioms like dog-whistle and dogpile, jargon like identitarian, pathocracy or factuality – is not straightforward and not neutral or innocent. These are expressions designed to describe a changing social landscape, but also often designed to baffle, to bamboozle and confuse, to manipulate us. This of course is not new – the language of advertising and of politics has been doing this for a long time, but the multichannels, platforms and outlets and the multimedia techniques employed are far more pervasive and sophisticated than ever before.
Americans refer to words as ‘skunked’ if their meanings have become distorted and they become toxified, so that elite, metropolitan and cosmopolitan, snowflake and melt become slurs; libertarian, which once meant progressive, now refers to the far right, politically correct and social justice warrior and virtue-signalling are insults. When Boris Johnson calls his predecessor a girly swot, accuses a critic of humbug, the cosy, dated words are uttered with barely concealed venom.
In the UK we still prize a sense of humour and some terms do sound lighthearted: cakeism is wanting to have your cake and eat it – this time used by the EU against the UK for once – when Jeremy Corbyn is described as a magic grandpa or the absolute boy, the comments are double-edged to say the least. The so-called centrist dad (I’m probably one myself) is not just an ageing moderate but a feeble, cowardly enabler of the far right; magic money tree and unicorn are definitely not meant to be funny, and gammon** describes a ruddy-faced apopleptic male, invariably a Brexit supporter, but the word is an expression of genuine hate by the left.
There are some ironic phrases I find funny despite their serious intent: one is ‘Airfix Patriotism’ – Airfix sold plastic kits in the 50s and 60s for making model warplanes, and dads and kids would buy them and stick them together with glue, evoking the heroic actions of pilots in the second world war – the patriotic rantings of the right today have been seen as based not on any understanding of our history but on a caricatured, kitsch vision of a heroic past. In the same way Ladybird libertarians base their false memories of an idyllic England on the beautiful watercolour illustrations in the Ladybird childrens books and on comics and tea-towels rather than social realities.
The terms that irritate me, though, are the clichés, catchphrases and slogans endlessly repeated; take back control, get it done, the will of the people, Brexit means Brexit…
There are scientific, technical-sounding words being bandied about which actually describe frightening changes in power relations: ethnonationalism, nativism, pathocracy (the rule of sociopaths and psychopaths), sadopopulism (strongman rulers who end up victimising even their own supporters) and even homonationalism – the co-opting of LGBT issues to advance a racist ideology.
Donald Trump is famous for the crudity of his language, but the metaphors used in political discourse in the UK have also moved further and further into the realm of conflict, warfare, occupation and collaboration: first directed at our supposed enemies in the EU, traitor, betrayal, saboteur are now aimed at anyone at home – quitlings or quislings – rabble – who fails to toe the party line with enough enthusiasm. Academics in the US and UK are analysing the rhetoric and the metaphors but tend to discuss these things with each other I want to talk to the public, to make people more aware.
Of course new circumstances do demand new language and some expressions just fill what linguists call a ‘lexical gap’ in the language: both-sidesism, whataboutery, de-platforming, cancel culture all were coined to describe concepts that didn’t exist or weren’t so important in the past, the whole vocabulary of Brexit, including the word itself is unprecedented. It sometimes feels as if our whole reality is unprecedented, and we, whether we lean to the right or to the left, just wish it would stop, but it’s not over yet: inevitably there will be much more verbiage, rhetoric, toxic terminology, to come…
Some new thoughts about the pervasive, destabilising, discomfiting Language of Lying in public life
In 2015 Conservative politician Grant Shapps was forced to admit that he had ‘over-firmly denied’ having a second job under a pseudonym, selling a ‘get-rich-quick’ scheme while sitting as an MP.
In 2008 Hillary Clinton admitted that she had ‘misspoken’ when she claimed to have come under sniper fire during a 1996 visit to Bosnia.
A slang phrase, borrowed from US street and hiphop parlance into so-called MLE, ‘multicultural London English’, and often used by teenagers in London today, is ‘no cap!’ an exclamation which is the modern equivalent of the adult ‘no word of a lie!’ when swearing that you can be trusted, are being sincere, are telling the truth.
Orwell famously exposed the doublespeak of totalitarianism and I wrote some years ago about politicians’ evasive and duplicitous ‘weasel-words’ (a version of the article is on this site). In the late 90s I presented a series for the BBC World Service in which we looked at the politics of ‘spin’ and the work of the spin-doctors employed first by Bill Clinton and later by Tony Blair to massage their messages and to take ownership of the media narratives of the moment. The half-truths and untruths perpetrated today are more frequent, more widespread, some are more flagrant, and all are helped in their trajectories by multiple new platforms and outlets and far more sophisticated mainstream and social media capabilities.
I have collected examples of the toxic terminology and ‘skunked’ terms employed by demagogues and charlatans and echoed by compliant journalists and commentators (my glossary is on this site). In the media maelstrom we are presently living through, untruths, half-truths and fake news, too, have featured prominently and repeatedly in the national conversations of the US and the UK. With this in mind the Open University has produced a two-part mini-documentary on the Language of Lying in which I was privileged to take part. We talk about the concepts of truth and falsehood and about their incarnations in the current context of populism, Trumpism and Brexit.
Part One of the documentary is here:
I’m very grateful to Dr Philip Seargeant of the OU for initiating this project and asking me to take part, grateful too to Hamlett Films for producing the programme.
Here is the second part:
And here are links to two more recent commentaries on lying:
By way of an update, in May 2021 Conservative MP Rory Stewart delivered this assessment of Prime Minister Boris Johnson:
Then, in June…
In August 2021 the UK government deployed a comms strategy that commentators referred to variously as ‘spin’, ‘stretching the truth’, ‘newspeak’… and ‘institutional lying’…
In January 2022, as Boris Johnson faced a tide of indignation following revelations of lockdown breaches (the so-called ‘partygate’ scandal), Journalist Peter Oborne published a list of what he charitably termed ‘misleading statements’ made by the Prime Minister and still uncorrected in official records…
Print, broadcast and social media have a fairly small repertoire of expressions to deploy when fawning over, or seeking to discredit, the bigwigs who lord it over us and, supposedly, lead us. The expression I have just used, hoping for a striking epithet, is first attested in the mid-18th century (already with its tinge of sarcasm, its lack of due deference) when ostentatious wigs were worn by the most important and self-important personages in the land: ‘A new point of discussion for the lawyers, for our big wigs, for their Lordships.’ From the same era and invariably used of Dr Johnson is ‘panjandrum’, from Grand Panjandrum, an invented phrase in a nonsense verse published in 1755 by Samuel Foote*. By the 19th century it had come to refer mockingly to an ‘imposing figure’, especially if puffed-up. Such terms have a comic quality which may not be quite appropriate in the current climate of political rancour, so we revert to the (over) familiar mainstays of journalistic discourse.
With recollections of the notorious fraudster press baron Robert Maxwell featuring in post-Epstein press reports the word magnate has been employed by more than a few journalists. It first appeared in Middle English and derives from late Latin magnas, magnat – great man, and it and its translations formerly defined a class of post-feudal nobility in European lands.
While we are at it, grandee (important, influential male in public life, often applied to elderly, retired, invariably hugely wealthy former politicians of a particular stripe) appeared in the late 16th century, from Spanish and Portuguese grande, senior nobles, from Latin grandis, great. The English ending was by association with the originally French-inspired ending -ee, seen in such formulations as ‘devotee’ and ‘debauchee.’
In the same lexical set of possibly overweening, overstated titles as ‘magnate’ and ‘grandee’ is mogul (as in ‘hedge-fund mogul pedophile’ – a recent press caption) which was originally cognate with ‘mongol’ and referred to the Mughal (the Iranian version) dynasties who ruled India between 1526 and 1857 and were thought by Europeans to have vast stores of treasure at their disposal. The word’s suggestion of limitless power coupled with financial profligacy gave us those journalistic cliches of the 1950s, ‘movie mogul’ and ‘Hollywood moguls.’
‘Mogul’, ‘grandee’, ‘magnate’ share a category with tycoon – Japanese taikun, great lord or prince, from Chinese tai great and kiun lord, a designation of the ruling Japanese Shogun used by respectful foreigners, adopted into English in the 1860s, first as an admiring description of a political figure, then, from the 1920s as journalese shorthand for a prominent business leader and/or entrepreneur, especially if perceived as powerful, dynamic and/or aggressive.
On Twitter J-V Vernay asks ‘How about nabob from Nawab?’ In the colonial era in India the word, which later came to mean a returning colonist who had enormously enriched themselves, originally denoted a deputy governor of a province under the Mogul Empire. It is Anglo-Indian, probably adopted via Portuguese nababo from Hindi and Urdu nabab, from the Arabic plural nuwwab meaning viceroys. A wonderful word in its jaunty sound and in its connotations, perhaps bestowed most memorably in this case:
Another rather rare but interestingly loaded term for alpha-males in public life is plutocrat, denoting a wielder of power derived from enormous wealth. ‘Plutocracy’ appeared in English in 1631, from the Greek ploutos wealth and -kratia, meaning rule and was widely used to describe the economic and social dominance exercised by late 19th century and early 20th century industrialists in the USA. Potentate is another resonant label from the politico-journalistic lexicon: it began to be used in the 1400s and is formed from Latin potentatus, dominion, from potent, having and/or exercising power.
I should probably mention in passing the honorific I secretly crave for myself: it’s eminence-grise, describing a ‘power-behind-the-throne’, a hidden manipulator of affairs, an arranger working in the shadows, originally referring to His Eminence François Leclerc du Tremblay, who wore a beige robe when that colour was in French described as grey and was the righthand-man of Cardinal Richelieu.
In my previous post I listed some of the disapproving epithets for those in public life who wield power and influence and aspire to or affect greatness but, to put it much too kindly, fall far short. Another term associated with scrutiny of these reprobates which has been trending recently is impostor. ‘Impostor syndrome’ (then known as ‘impostor phenomenon’) was first defined in 1978. The word itself was adopted from French in the 16th century, derived via French imposteur from Latin imponere to impose upon, deceive, swindle. An ‘imposture’ denoted a fraudulent display or adoption of a false persona while the imposter or impostor was the perpetrator. Some, of course, who exhibit symptoms of the syndrome – shiftiness, false bonhomie, exaggerated preening – really are impostors.
*Foote invented the word, which has echoes of Latin or Asiatic tongues, as part of a sequence to test the memory of a fellow-actor: ‘And there were present the Picninnies, and the Joblillies, and the Garyulies and the Grand Panjandrum himself, with the little round button at the top’
It has become a tradition for the major dictionary publishers, along with some linguists’ associations, to nominate a ‘word of the year’, a term (or in the case of Oxford’s 2015 crying/laughing emoji a symbol) which supposedly captures the essence of the zeitgeist, and in doing so marks the proposer as someone in tune with the times and with their target audience. The words chosen are rarely actually new, and by the nature of the exercise calculated to provoke disagreement and debate. I have worked with and written about what linguists and anthropologists call ‘cultural keywords’ and have my own ideas on which expressions could be truly emblematic of social change and cultural innovation. The words already nominated by the self-appointed arbiters are discussed at the foot of the page, but here, for what it’s worth, are mine (in order of preference)…
Yes, strictly speaking it’s two words, but this little initialism looks like a two-letter word and is processed by the brain as a ‘lexeme’ or a single unit of sound and sense. AI, artificial intelligence, is the hottest topic not only in tech-related practices but in fields as (seemingly) diverse as marketing, finance, automotives, medicine and health, education, environmentalism. Zdnet.com has published one of the most useful overviews of AI and its sub-categories and applications:
Though it is one of the most fashionable and most resonant terms in current conversation, a slogan and a rallying cry as well as a definition, AI is problematic in the same way as two other recent contenders for word-of the moment, CRYPTO and DIGITAL. The former is shorthand for all the very complex, not to say near-incomprehensible elements that have accompanied the invention of crypto-currencies – bitcoins and blockchains in particular. These advances have yet to prove their worth for most ordinary consumers who will often be bemused by new terminology that seems to be traded among experts somewhere beyond their grasp or their reach. In the same way for the last few years ‘digital’ has been a mantra evoking the unstoppable influence of new electronic media, (related SOCIAL was a strong candidate for buzzword of 2017). Digital’s over-use by overexcited marketing professionals, would-be thought-leaders and influencers has been inspiring mockery since 2016, as in the spoof article in the Daily Mash: https://www.thedailymash.co.uk/news/business/nobody-knows-what-digital-supposed-to-mean-20160614109525
To put it almost as crudely as the Daily Mash does, there’s a sense in which almost no layperson knows, or can know fully, what Digital, Crypto and AI really mean, and the same goes for the expressions derived from them – ‘deep learning’ comes to mind. Their power derives from their novelty and their ability to evoke a techutopian future happening now. The phrase artificial intelligence was first employed in 1956 and its abbreviated form has been used by insiders since at least the early 2000s, but it is only now that it, and the concepts it embodies, are coming into their own.
At first sight just another over-syllabled buzzword escaping from the confines of academic theory (‘performativity’, ‘superdiversity’ and ‘dimensionality’ are recent examples) into highbrow conversation, intersectionality is actually an important addition to the lexicon of identity studies. It was coined as long ago as 1989 by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a civil rights activist and legal scholar who wrote that traditional feminist ideas and anti-racist policies exclude black women because they face overlapping discrimination that is unique to them. The word took 26 years to make it into the OED and is still unfamiliar to many, but during 2018 has featured in more and more debates on diversity and discrimination, marking the realisation that, for BAME women and for other marginalised groups, the complexities of oppression and inequality occur in a matrix that incorporates not only gender and ethnicity but such factors as age, sexuality and social class. There are each year a few forbiddingly formal or offputtingly technical expressions that do deserve to cross over into mainstream use. This I think is one of them and no journalist, educationalist, politician or concerned citizen should be unaware of it.
I was intrigued by the sudden appearance (sudden at least by my understanding) earlier this year – its online lookups spiked in June – of a decorous, dignified term in the midst of very undecorous, undignified public debate. This old latinate word’s denotations and connotations were in complete contrast with the ‘skunked terms’ and toxic terminology that I had collected elsewhere on this site. In fact, as is often the case, this word of the moment emerged from a longer tradition, but one largely unknown hitherto outside the US. Its proposer was Professor P.M Forni, who sadly died a couple of weeks ago. In 1997, together with colleagues he established the Johns Hopkins Civility Project — now known as the Civility Initiative — a collaboration of academic disciplines that addressed the significance of civility and manners in modern life. His ideas were seized upon by commentators on this year’s events in the US, with some asserting that the civil rights protests of the past were indeed more civil than today’s rancorous exchanges. Democrat Nancy Pelosi denounced Donald Trump’s ‘daily lack of civility’ but also criticised liberal opponents’ attacks on him and his constituency. Others pointed out that polite debate alone had never prevailed in the struggles against bigotry and violence and that civility was an inadequate, irrelevant response. Cynics inserted their definitions: ‘civility’ = treating white people with respect; ‘political correctness’ = treating everybody else with respect…which prompts the thought that perhaps, in recognition of realities on both sides of the Atlantic, it’s really ‘incivility’ that should be my word of the year.
Here, in the Economist, is the ‘Johnson’ column’s perceptive analysis of those other nominations for 2018’s word of the year:
In the New Year the American Dialect Society announced its own word of 2018, a disturbing euphemism employed by the Trump regime and a candidate for my glossary of toxic terminology (see elsewhere on this site):
I have been collecting new and controversial languagegenerated by the rise of conservative populism in the US and the UK, by pro- and anti-Trump sentiment in the US and by the divisions resulting from the UK’s Brexit vote. This is a work in progress: the preliminary list of terms as it stands is below. Soon I plan to offer detailed definitions and comments (for example, the second word in the list is my own invention, intended to describe a statement, act or policy showing effrontery, and itself a deliberate affront to a section of the population) and a ‘lexical’ categorisation (into ‘jargon’, ‘slang, ‘catchphrase’, cliché, for instance).
***Please do contact me with new examples, with comments and with criticism, which will be gratefully acknowledged and credited.***
Brexit means Brexit
Britain deserves better
Canada plus plus plus
Dead cat strategy
Drain the swamp
Enemies of the people
Fall off a cliff
False flag operation
Flooding the zone
Get it done
Getting the barnacles off the boat
Henry VIII powers
Hose it down
Kicking the can down the road
Leave means leave
Magic money tree
Operation Red Meat
Operation Save Big Dog
Put/stick that on the side of a bus
Race to the bottom
SJW social justice warrior
Taking back control
Throw under the bus
#tfg, ‘the former guy’
Will of the people
I’m grateful especially to the many contacts on Twitterwho have already contributed to this modest project, particularly Duncan Reynolds @duncanr2, and will credit them all by name/handle when a final version is published.
I’m also very grateful to Rob Booth and the Guardian who, in October 2019, wrote about the glossary and its topicality in increasingly conflicted times:
**’Skunked terms’ are words or expressions undergoing a controversial change in meaning. Examples are ‘liberal’ and ‘libertarian’ which have transitioned from referring to leftist, progressive or centrist positions to denote neo-conservative or alt-right affiliations. Nearly two years on from my original post the useful designation ‘anglosphere’, describing English-speaking nations with shared cultural features, has been co-opted by far-right nativists in the UK to promote a supremacist ideology.
As a further footnote, this from Twitter in November 2020 (thanks to Alan Pulverness), a reminder that weaponised words may also be frivolous – even puerile:
And finally, from 2016, a prescient tweet by Gary Kasparov: