Be Alert! Dubious demagogues in Downing Street need lerts

CROYDON COMMENTARY: Ahead of tonight’s ‘big’ announcement from the Prime Minister, with a set of new slogans, RICHARD ACKLAND warns us to be wary of the real meaning behind the language used

Many are looking ahead to the “post-virus” era, quite naturally. May it soon arrive!

And it’s clear that there will be many developments which are likely to create permanent changes to our habits of life. Some are obvious, like the increase in online shopping and of working from home, both of which will encourage Thatcherite individualism and be detrimental to our functioning as social beings.

There are probably plenty of others, for better and for worse, some of which aren’t yet apparent even to the keenest of observers.

But I’m more interested in the impact of the crisis upon our language, or at any rate upon the uses to which it is being put.

Many years (decades?) ago, I recall being intently suspicious of the introduction of the expression “shoplifting”. It seemed to me then, and still does, to be isolating one particular segment of a crime, theft, and giving it a name which worked to diminish the gravity of that crime. Stealing from a shop somehow became less serious than stealing from anywhere else.

But it’s not just the insidious change of meaning; it’s the unthinking way in which we all assimilated it.

And the same considerations apply to such expressions as “mugging” or “roadrage” (seeming to regard violent behaviour, verbal or physical, as less serious if committed on the highway).

More recently we have “scam” which started life as a kind of very malevolent practical joke or as a con-man’s or quack-doctor’s trick, but which now is equated with fraud, which is what it is. However it carries with it traces of its linguistic origin so that it sounds less serious than fraud. After all, we have a “serious fraud squad”. We don’t have a “serious scam squad”.

These expressions are perhaps acceptable as natural mutations of the language as it develops and changes. Nonetheless, it remains alarming that we should adopt them so readily and allow them to become part of our everyday vocabulary so easily.

What we are faced with now is, however, more extreme and quite different.

A month or two ago none of us were familiar with the expressions “lockdown”, “social distancing” or “self-isolation”, or, if some of us were, they were certainly not part of common parlance

Now they are part of our everyday vocabulary. Their invention may once again be blamed upon lazy journalists, always eager for an easy headline, rather than having to reach for the thesaurus.

But there’s more to it this time. These expressions are effectively being imposed upon us. All of them may be easily paraphrased, but paraphrases are rarely heard and barely tolerated. We are assailed with these terms non-stop and we meekly accept them without question. And the reason is that a single exclusive cliché provides more powerful propaganda than a set of synonyms.

Few of us would rail at the use of powerful messages (or propaganda ) in these unprecedented circumstances; we probably regard it as quite justified.

But we should be wary. If this vocabulary can be so easily imposed and assimilated in a worthy cause, then the same methods can be employed just as easily for positively repugnant purposes. We put ourselves at the mercy of any demagogue who can command access to various media.

Dr Goebbels would be rubbing his hands with glee and George Orwell would be gloomily reflecting upon the fulfilment of some of his warnings.

For we may be sure that careful note is being taken by advertising executives (who already recognise these things far better than most of us) and by potentially unscrupulous aspiring politicians of unsavoury opinions and dubious credentials. Our best defence, it seems to me, is to strive to eschew these universal clichés and to paraphrase them as frequently and as variously as we can instead.

If you remain unconvinced by all this, try reading Orwell’s Politics and the English Language.

  • Richard Ackland is a pensioner living in Kenley who says he has been active local over the last 20 years or so in bridge clubs, debating society, Italian club, the Labour Party, tennis club, tiddlywinks…

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3 Responses to Be Alert! Dubious demagogues in Downing Street need lerts

  1. A good exposition of the use (and misuse) of language. Sometimes these phrases are vacuous but powerful. “Get Brexit Done” worked for BJ although of course Brexit isn’t done. We don’t even know if it can be satisfactorily completed. In the same way “Stay Alert” seems a flawed piece of rhetoric without investment in testing and detection, starting with those who have the biggest need to be alert or for us to be alert to or on behalf of. “Control the virus” is an aspiration and without proper investment is likely to remain so for a long time. “Save Lives” is both an aspiration and an appeal. The test will be what is actually done to implement change rather than the the chance that we we are assuaged by a bland slogan. Let’s hope that we can reach a better result with the pandemic in the UK than we have done so far

  2. Lewis White says:

    Another classic bit of “language shift” is the ubiquitous use of the “m-word” – that nice, neutral-sounding word “migration”, which we all know really means immigration when issuing from the mouths or keyboards of people somehow aware that they need to avoid any linguistic link with Enoch Powell, but get over their message that foreigners are not wanted as residents.

  3. Colin Cooper says:

    I do believe that the change of wording put out yesterday is a mistake. The ‘stay at home’ was clear and precise whilst the latest statement/saying is wishy-washy at best and I have strong concerns the ‘morons’ will simply see this as a ‘go ahead and do whatever you want’ excuse, as if they needed encouragement. We’ll have to wait and see how things progress.

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