Collateral Language

I awoke thinking of a mode of language and rhetoric that is ubiquitous in political discourse and especially in parlous times. The words that came to me were: self-serving, mollification, deception, bamboozlement, Buncombe. Which of my word books address this realm?

Word books live in temporal and spatial contexts. The two-word phrases of Grenville Kleiser’s Fifteen Thousand Useful Phrases echo the world of the book’s publication in 1917, and part of their charm and bite is that they are slightly outside of the current vernacular, but not so far removed that we can’t grasp their messages and apply them to our 21st century concerns and sensibilities.

In November 2003 I did a consultation gig on the GIS program at St. Lawrence University in uppermost New York—flew to Ottawa (the nearest airport), drove a rental car to Canton NY, spent a couple of days talking with faculty and staff, wrote a report. While in Canton I (of course) wandered into the college bookstore and found the just-published Collateral Language: A User’s Guide to America’s New War (edited by John Collins and Ross Glover), which presents short essays (“written to expose the tyranny of political rhetoric used to justify ‘America’s New War’.”) on 14 concepts that were especially of interest in those early years of the War in Iraq, after the shocks of September 11, 2001:

Anthrax, Blowback, Civilization versus Barbarism, Cowardice, Evil, Freedom, Fundamentalism, Jihad, Justice, Targets, Terrorism, Unity, Vital Interests, The War on _____

Most of those will resonate with anybody who was watching and listening in the early years of the 21st century. Collateral Language can be read as a gauge of the Emperor’s Raiment of that time, and of the modes of speech and rhetoric deployed in mass media.

U.S. officials, like their counterparts in decades past, attempted to generate public support for their actions by appealing to ideas as powerful as they are abstract: freedom, civilization, terrorism, evil. This language needs interrogation wherever it is found… Language, like terrorism,targets civilians and generates fear in order to effect political change… a specific type of fearfulness emerges, both intentionally and unintentionally… The use of specific kinds of language for political purposes exists within a long historical lineage of human development, and in order to understand any political system, we must understand the meaning created by that system. Rather than blindly accepting the meaning, usage, and truth of political leaders and news stories, we have an obligation, as citizens of a democratic state, to question, critique, and understand the language given to us by those who claim to represent our interests… (from the Introduction)

Manufacturing Consent … What You Hear Is What You See …

From Ross Glover’s “The War on _____”:

Fill in the blank. Regardless of what word you insert, the American public understands. U.S. presidents learned this lesson well over the past 40 [now almost 60…] years. “The War on _____” plays on our competitive heartstrings like a football cheer. “Yes,” we seem to respond, “fight the good fight, O fearless President, fight the war for us, fight the war for the good of humanity, but most importantly just fight.”

Poverty, Drugs, Terrorism, the “Chinese Virus”…

What Goes Around Comes Around.

1 thought on “Collateral Language

  1. AvatarJan Broek

    And now this very now we have a new host of languages, a new glossary of terms with the onset
    of Covid 19. A couple examples; to mitigate, social distancing, to shelter in place, and?

    Reply

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