Tuesday, October 11, 2011

"This point in time" to "regime change": What are your favorite weasel words?

I wrote yesterday about Alan Glynn's recognition in his novel Bloodland of narrative as a contemporary weasel word. Two further examples from the book make the word's ominous associations clearer:
"In fact, since the entire Buenke operation is under his command, he'll be the one responsible for shaping and disseminating the official narrative of what happened here."
and
"Of course, the high-visibility brace on his hand leaves no one in any doubt about the narrative subtext that's being peddled here."
What's so ominous about narrative? Couldn't Glynn have substituted story with equal effect? I don't know. Narrative, especially as a noun, is a vogue word, and vogue words, especially ones with lots of syllables, are good for concealing an absence of thought or conveying an illusion of seriousness. I may have more to say on this subject going forward.

But Glynn's ear for contemporary Orwellianisms goes further:
"`...your best chance with these people will actually be down to something else entirely, something quite intangible.'

"Conway looks at him. `What's that?'

"`You. The Conway Holdings brand.'"
and
"I've got to take it to the next level, you know, keep the traction but change the conversation."
The speakers of the boldface word are, respectively, a lawyer advising a client on evading the consequences of a shady deal, and a politician trying to capitalize on a monstrous lie. Be very, very skeptical of people who talk or write like that.
***
Most Americans would likely associate Richard Nixon ("This point in time") and the second George Bush ("Regime change") with truth-deflecting political euphemisms, but the Bill Clinton years ushered their own creepy phrases into popular speech, "national conversation," to name one, a weirdly bogus attempt to create an illusion of community in a fragmented culture.  What euphemisms and evasions do you find especially nauseating? What authors have especially sharp eyes and ears for them? 

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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26 Comments:

Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

"Weasel word." I love that.

October 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I should so a search for narrative in a broad database -- from a newspaper, say -- to see how many instances are refer either to manipulation ot the Glynnian kind or else are puffery -- instances where story would do just as well but not make the user feel so clever.

I'm reminded of the time in American sports journalism a few decades ago when it suddenly became insufficient to talk or write about the game. One had to find stories -- or, in the preferred inflated term, storylines. One had, as Alan Glynn's consultants, lawyers, and killers would say, create a narrative.

Ha! I should start a public relations firm. My slogan: "Crafting narratives. When telling a story isn't enough."

October 11, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

I think you could just call it Weasel Words, Inc. You wouldn't even have to advertise. Your clientele would come to you.

October 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yep, just call me Pete Rozovsky, the Truth Merchant.

October 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

My services will include writing for corporate exectives, whom I will charge by the syllable.

October 11, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

I would charge them by the amount they make your blood pressure rise.

October 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And I like your suggestion for a corporate name, but only as a starting point. I will distill your suggestion down to WWI. That will impress the sort of people who would likely pay for my services.

October 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I would charge them by the amount they make your blood pressure rise.

Nah, my clients wouldn't be able to afford that.

October 11, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

These are corporate CEOs, Peter--uh, Pete.

You've got to think BIG.

October 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Say, you can call me Pete. So, what are your goals going forward?

October 11, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

Pretty much the same as they are going backward.

But then, I'm not much a goal-oriented kind of gal.

October 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Great. That's something we can work with. That's your brand.

October 11, 2011  
Anonymous solo said...

I may have more to say on this subject going forward

I assume the use of going forward was a joke but I'm not sure many people would get it.

Narrative, especially as a noun, is a vogue word, and vogue words, especially ones with lots of syllables, are good for concealing an absence of thought or conveying an illusion of seriousness

Insofar as I can understand what you mean by absence of thought and the illusion of seriousness, I disagree with that, Peter. Any word can be used in the way you describe. In that context, 'vogue' words are no more guilty than any other words.

In fact, I dislike the term 'vogue word'. It reeks of a certain kind of snobbery. Like describing a person as a parvenu or a Johnny- come-lately.

If a vogue word lasts long enough some committee in a backroom somewhere will give it a stamp of approval and stick it in a dictionary.

October 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, if just one reader gets it (and you did), I've done my job.

I probably do exhibit snobbery or something like it with respect to words. Sure, any word can be used tendentiously, eupehmistically, and disingenuously, but some are used predominantly that way, and I defend my right to look down on such words and to try to uncover the truth I think their users wish to conceal.

Here's one example: I remember being surprised more than twenty years ago when I passed the employees' entrance to some business, only the sign marking the entrance did not say, "Employees' entrance," it said, "Associates' entrance." Aha, I think, there's a new euphemism being born.

Sure enough, it wasn't long before hotels, restaurant and fast-food places all over the country started calling their employees associates. Why do you suppose they did this? Did the new term reflect new status or power on the part of the former-employees-turned-associates? I don't know for sure that it did not, but I would be surprised if it did.

Then, last year, a local Starbucks posted a help-wanted sign asking not for workers, not for employees or even for associates, but for "partners." One wants to ask how great a voice these "partners" will have in setting corporate policy, but one does not ask because one knows exactly what the answer will be.

If you or anyone else can point out any substantive difference between yesteryear's employees, yesterday's associates, and today's partners, I will reconsider my scorn for tendentious eupehmism. Until then, all I might do is expand list of things that vogue words with lots of syllables do. In addition to concealing an absence of thought and conveying an illusion of seriousness, they can create the illusion of change where none exists.

October 11, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

I think anyone who works in an American business setting--or I should say works for an American business can probably hear the fakery in 'going forward'.

To be fair, I don't think it's conscious. I think people hear these words or phrases and as imitative creatures we pick them up, especially if we think they sound important. There's nothing particularly wrong with going forward as a phrase, but it is, as at least Peter and I know from our working lives, business school speech. There are all kinds of intentions and especially deceptions implied in the phrase in context.

If you ever hear, "Going forward, we aim for complete transparency," it means first that there has been a good deal of obfuscation before and probably that there will be even more to follow. But that they will hide their tracks better.

October 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

" I think people hear these words or phrases and as imitative creatures we pick them up, especially if we think they sound important. "

Yep.

"Going forward" is several things:

1) A benign, though unnecessary, substitute for "from now on," as in: "We have had no policy on part-time hiring, but we will going forward."

2) A pompous redundancy, as in, "We will take a fifty percent stake in the innovation lab as well as a share of the profits in any products it develops going forward."

I also suspect that it's am embodiment of what Mark McGwire meant when he told Congress that "I'm not here to talk about the past": an effort to paper over past transgressions and to paint those who refure to do so as backward.

October 11, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

I agree on all three aspects.

October 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

...an American business setting--or I should say works for an American business...

I see references to classroom settings (rather than classrooms) and urban environments (rather than cities) every day. That's social-science puffery, and a piece of my innocence dies every time I hear or read such expressions in a newsroom. I nearly plotzed the first time a highly placed editor used impact as a verb in a memo.

October 11, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

Social science has a lot to answer for when it comes to American prose.

October 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Social science, politics, business, mass media, rock music, schools ... all an American can do is get a good education and upbringing, read some good books, keep company with intelligent people, call 'em as he or she sees 'em, and hope the resultant verbal stew is as vast and piquant as the great land from which it emerges.

October 12, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

What the hell was that? Hoe can a stew be vast? Well, it could be, I suppose, but it would induce indigestion. I apologize for that dreadful metaphor.

October 12, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Also, in the corporate world, saying "we need to be more competitive," or "The auto industry will be 'more competitive' in the global economy.

Reality check: This means layoffs, cuts in salaries, health care and pension benefits for their employees, outsourcing to states or countries where they can pay lower wages, and no hiring or a bit of hiring in aforementioned lower-wage regions.

October 12, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

I don't think good schools are entirely proof from leading one astray.

What I think you have to have is a skeptical mind and a good ear. I don't know how you get one, but I think that's the ticket.

October 12, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, "competitive" in the corporate sense has been around for so long that I think people sometimes forget the meanings it can conceal.

October 12, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I can think of no other requirement than those two.

October 12, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Seana, good.

Skepticism, questioning everything, and having opinions -- all at an early age is good.

My own awakening, when I found out I could have opinions and question things started at age 7. It's never let up.

Plus reading a lot helps. It changes people, brings in new ideas, teaches one to question.

This is why thousands of incidents of banning books has occurred. The American Library Association just held a week publicizing this ridiculous activity. All of my favorite and life-forming books are on it, starting with The Grapes of Wrath.

October 12, 2011  

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