Assertion, unsupported by fact, is nugatory. Surmise and general abuse, in however elegant language, ought not to pass for truth. Junius

2005/01/14

Some Turns of Phrase We Could Do Without

Rereading George Orwell's great essay "Politics and the English Language" is like being doused with cold water: it reminds your of your own sloppiness, and makes you keen against the tired, hackneyed language of others. I've provided three examples of what Orwell meant, all coming into prominence during times of war, though in the case of one, the Second World War, and all of which have slipped into common usage. It is noteable that Orwell was writing in times of great strife, both political, diplomatic and military; in our time, similiar tension results in similiar tendency towards vagueness and obfuscation; where a "coalition of the willing" means two powers doing 95 per cent of the work, where "regime change" hides 100 000 civilian deaths and "national security" is shorthand for loss of freedom and constitutional rights. The examples I have chosen -- there are dozens ---maybe hundreds of others ---- illustrate something else about the reality of present political discourse. They all play a part of the continuing reconstruction of America's post-war history, which glorifies war and redeems acts of naked power as the defence of liberty. They impose a sort of moral clarity on issues fraught with ambivilence: hence their appeal. But they contain a lie at heart. Writers using them ought to be flogged with the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, or some volume of equal heft.

"Blood and Treasure"

Originally surfaced, in my memory, in the couple of years after the terrorist attacks in a patriotic context of American "blood and treasure used to defend liberty around the world." Some representative examples:
Moreover, the Constitution as written and ratified and amended serves only the People of these United States. It is a covenant for that purpose. The blood and treasure of our people are invested in the Nation and respective States, that is to say, in ourselves. (Source)

The costs are becoming clearer by the day in Afghanistan and Iraq where, having toppled the Taliban and the Ba'athists, Americans are spending more blood and treasure in pursuit of an ever-elusive democratic peace. (Source)

The United States is no longer the predictable enforcer of the status quo ("just export oil and drive out communists"). Rather, we are pledging blood and treasure for popular reform in a death struggle with Islamic fascism to offer a humane alternative to corrupt sheiks, generals and kings. (Source)

"Blood and treasure" obfuscates that actual soldiers are dying and immense deficits are being piled up by rephrasing the reality into exalted language. Says Orwell: "[W]riting that aims at glorifying war usually takes on an archaic colour". The earliest reference I could find is in a poem of Shelley's, "The Mask of Irony" (1819):

Thou art Peace - never by thee
Would blood and treasure wasted be
As tyrants wasted them, when all
Leagued to quench thy flame in Gaul

Mask of irony indeed: Shelly was writing of the events of the Peterloo massacre.

"In Harm's Way"

Another catchphrase that gained widespread currency after 11 September. Probably entered popular conciousness with --- wait for it --- the title of a John Wayne flick about Pearl Harbor, which in turn drew from a letter from U.S. naval hero John Paul Jones:

"I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast; for I intend to go in harm's way."

Some examples:
Soldiers headed for Iraq are still buying their own body armor — and in many cases, their families are buying it for them — despite assurances from the military that the gear will be in hand before they're in harm's way. (Source)

Of all the gifts you could give a US Soldier, Sailor, Airman, Marine & others deployed in harm's way, prayer is the very best one. Remember your family members or friends who are serving our country. (Source)

"I know Secretary Rumsfeld's heart," Mr. Bush told reporters in a year-end news conference. "I know how much he cares for the troops. I have heard the anguish in his voice, and seen his eyes when we talk about the danger in Iraq and the fact that youngsters are over there in harm's way. He's a good, decent man. He's a caring fellow." (Source)

Again the slightly archaic language -- the use of the descriptive genitive --- coupled with a reference to a hero of the American War of Independence to camoflage the reality.

"Stand Shoulder to Shoulder"

Another chestnut. Even Orwell made fun of it, though it was unfortunately revived by Tony Blair: "We, therefore, here in Britain stand shoulder to shoulder with our American friends in this hour of tragedy, and we, like them, will not rest until this evil is driven from our world." The phrase conjures up images of soldiers in serried ranks, solidarity and going over the top together into No Man's Land. Conservatives in this country have gotten some mileage out of it, because of Canada's persistant lack of shoulderliness in whole-heartedly supporting America's imperial adventures. Some examples:

The Conservative Party. . .will stand shoulder to shoulder with the US when we can so that we can sit eyeball to eyeball when we must. (Source)

I am here to assure you that Canada is committed to stand shoulder to shoulder with Haiti. (Source)

"This loss is shared by our entire task force. Our hearts ache with yours as we continue to stand shoulder-to-shoulder against terrorism," said Col. Frank Wiercinski, a U.S. Army spokesman in Afghanistan. "The cost of this fight has been great, but our commitment remains greater." (Source)

The appalling truth is these may never go away, though we heartily pray they do. They are far too easy for journalists and writers to use, and for some, not really objectionable at all.

3 Comments:

Blogger Pete said...

One of the things I noticed as I read Orwell's essay was that he uses more and more anglicized latin words as he goes. I think that, because of that, it should be taken a bit tongue in cheek, but turns of phrase are definitely over used.

Friday, 14 January, 2005  
Blogger Greg said...

The list of words is indeed quite long. We live in an age when "conservative" means "radical" and "liberal" means "enemy of the people".

Saturday, 15 January, 2005  
Blogger Agaete said...

Id add to your list the crotch grabbing, Captain Highlineresque "not on my watch!" maxim that has wiggled its way into everyday use. In this week's Economist, in the letters to the editor section, the phrase appears no less than two times.

Wednesday, 26 January, 2005  

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