Sunday, April 12, 2009

Words of warcraft

Today's New York Times runs an article on the changing language of the Whitehouse under Barack Obama's administration. It's not "a war on terror" anymore; it's overseas contingency operations, and it's no longer "terrorist attacks" but man-caused disasters.

Why should we care? They're just words, aren't they? And words don't kill people: weapons do. Well, kind of, but words are part of war and the groundwork that goes into softening up a population for war, or in Obama's case (we hope) a step away from the deranged war his nutty predecessor decided to wage.

Peter Baker explains in his article:
Every White House picks its words carefully, using poll-tested, focus-grouped language to frame issues and ideas to advance its goals. Mr. Bush's team did that assertively. The initial legislation expanding government power after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, was called the USA Patriot Act. The eavesdropping without warrants that became so controversial was rebranded the Terrorist Surveillance Program. The enemy was, for a time, dubbed ''Islamofascism,'' until that was deemed insensitive to Muslims.

And he goes on to argue that while Obama is keen to change perceptions about his policies, in Baker's view, the substance of Bush's policies actually remains in place:
He has made no move to revise the Patriot Act or the eavesdropping program. He has ordered the Guantánamo prison to be closed in a year but has not settled on an alternative way to house inmates deemed to be truly dangerous.
Are the Obama administration's words a whitewash then? Is the emphasis on a change of language just a way of hiding the fact that the policies remain the same, or does the shift in tone signal a profound shift in direction to come? The jury's out...

And how is this useful to you at A level? The contemporary language change question on ENA5 often asks you to consider how new words and phrases come into existence or how existing words change, and politics has been explicitly mentioned on a couple of occasions as an are to look at (along with technology, communication, youth culture, immigration and war), so it's worth trying to have a few examples from contemporary news stories at your fingertips.

You might also want to look at how the recent global economic crisis (a nice new noun phrase) has led to new expressions, or how technology has co-opted older expressions and recycled them. How about these examples:

  • credit crunch
  • financial liquidity
  • quantitative easing
  • fiscal stimulus package
  • avatar
  • icon
  • virus
  • bankster
  • menu
  • zombie
  • downturn

Accent attitudes: lessons in discourses

As I posted a day or two back, accent attitudes have been back in the news. Following a report from The Sutton Trust , using research from t...