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
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.
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.
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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