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…
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:
Looking back to 2016, a prescient tweet by Gary Kasparov:
At the end of 2022 my friend and collaborator Dan Clayton wrote, for Byline Times, about the latest iteration of toxic terminology and rhetoric: the demonising of refugees and migrants: