Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Weasel words

Today's Independent features an article by columnist Johann Hari on the euphemisms he would expunge from the English Language. As he puts it, "The English language needs periodically to be given a spring-clean, where we scrape off the phrases that have become stuck to the floor and toss out the rotting metaphors that have fallen down the back of the settee".

Among the expressions are "fair trade", of which he says:

This phrase suggests that paying desperately poor people a decent wage is a nice
ethical add-on, and a gratifying departure from the norm. In fact, it should be
taken for granted – the default position of civilised human beings. If we
believed that, the labelling would be reversed: it's all the other food that
should be labelled as "Unfair Trade", "Rapacious Trade", or
"Let's-Pay-a-Pittance Trade." The terrific comedian Andy Zaltzman suggests a sign
that could be on the packets: it is a silhouette of an obese businessman pissing
on an African child.


Fair enough. But several comments in response to the article accuse Hari of doing exactly the same thing that he's complaining about: giving a political spin to the language he uses and the meanings he creates. So, is any language genuinely neutral? Can we open our mouths and speak without allowing our language choices to inadvertently reflect our views and political/ philosophical outlooks?

Again, this is an interesting article not only for the language issues addressed but for its potential use as a style model for the text you'll be writing about a language issue in your ENGA4 coursework and the Language Discourses part of the ENGA3 exam paper.

For more on euphemisms - what they are, how they're often used and why they annoy people - try this 2007 post on the blog.

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