Words as Weapons, Words as Smokescreen


In the following, terminology of ambivalent status, or that which is either currently disallowed or mandated, is featured in italics throughout.


A lie told often enough becomes the truth.
                   —Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

Repetition does not transform a lie into a truth.
                  —Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Pablo Iglesias, leader of the radical leftist Spanish party Podemos, once said in an interview: “Reality is defined by words. So whoever owns the words has the power to shape reality.” The most significant part of this observation is the word owns. In a world full of tendentious media reporting, politicians’ verbal evasions and academic obfuscation, the layman is often the useful idiot in the ongoing struggle for “ownership” of words, a struggle which usually involves narrowing their meanings to fit a specific agenda. This is what turns words into weapons; adroitly used they sow confusion amongst opponents, maladroitly they boomerang.

In Austria there was a verbal spat the other day between a Socialist and a Green MP (both therefore on the political “Left”), when the latter referred to the Lumpenproletariat. Such an expression, complained the Socialist, was grossly disrespectful to the people to whom it was applied. On the contrary, countered the Green, it was a Fachausdruck (technical term) used by Karl Marx to describe the unenlightened and uneducated level of society, adding maliciously, “I would have thought someone of your political persuasion would be familiar with Marxian concepts.”

This essay appears in October’s Quadrant.
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Both the Green and the Socialist have a point, depending upon how you look at it. Lumpenproletariat is indeed a term coined by Karl Marx to describe the layer of the working class that is “unlikely ever to achieve class consciousness and is therefore lost to socially useful production, of no use to the revolutionary struggle, and perhaps even an impediment to the realisation of a classless society”.[1] Arguably Marx was using it to describe a social category that, in his view, existed as an objective fact. On the other hand, the Socialist is obviously right to say that it is “disrespectful”, to say the least. The Marxist Internet Archive in its glossary of terms writes:

Lumpenproletariat identifies the class of outcast, degenerated and submerged elements that make up a section of the population of industrial centers. It includes beggars, prostitutes, gangsters, racketeers, swindlers, petty criminals, tramps, chronic unemployed or unemployables, persons who have been cast out by industry, and all sorts of declassed, degraded or degenerated elements.

Terminology taboos arise following a change in relative power status in a society. This can be seen, for example, in the shift of acceptable appellations for African Americans (Black Americans or Afro-Americans are also permissible) from negroes to blacks to coloured people to people of colour. A word like proletarian has likewise become taboo in polite company as a consequence of social developments. Even though Merriam-Webster’s first definition of it is simply “the labouring class”, the synonyms that immediately follow include riffraff, scum and rabble. Marx, who (like most revolutionaries) was decidedly middle-class, had difficulty concealing his contempt for the labouring masses; but the term working class was and is a badge of honour for those who own it. Nowadays the bourgeoisification of Western societies has diminished the numbers claiming to be workers (originally in contradistinction to those who were not and belonged to what Thorstein Veblen called “the leisure class”).[2] America being allergic to British class distinctions, as it is also to Marxism, has sociologised the category of manual workers under the heading of blue-collar workers. This is also a badge of pride, perhaps more so than the next category up in terms of remuneration and (they assume) status, the pen-pushing whitecollar workers.

Disputes like the one between the two Austrian politicians reflect in microcosm an macrocosmic struggle of semantic image-making. The claims attached to a particular use of a word in a given political context incorporate abuse of those who would derive different claims from a different use of the same words or phrases. The opposing camps of (supposedly) “Right” and “Left” doggedly fight to maintain ownership of terminology or concepts they feel have been illicitly appropriated by the other side in order to disguise a pernicious ideological agenda. A conservative uses words in a particular way to address his (or her) target group of voters. He seeks to indicate that he is a patriot and an economic realist who shares their devotion to national identity and family values; the other lot are by implication doubtfully patriotic spendthrifts who put the promotion of self-righteous ideology before the interests of the country. Conversely a leftist will be keen to show that his heart is in the right place by means of what is known as “virtue signalling”: he is for human rights, diversity, equality and apple pie; his conservative opponents, almost by definition, are selfish arseholes who don’t care about the poor, or world peace, and are quite happy to let the planet fry while driving their SUVs to oblivion.

Yet both sides speak incessantly of fairness, although it is evident that their interpretations of what is “fair” differ radically. Can one be equally fair to the haves and the have-nots? As the so-called centrist policies of Social Democrats and their Conservative opponents in many developed democracies have increasingly come to resemble each other, the room for rhetorical manoeuvre has shrunk. Political leverage may only be possible by using different terms to describe essentially the same policy as the other side’s, and implying that the latter opposes something it obviously supports. Calumny replaces argument and the electorate grows increasingly contemptuous of politics and politicians.

Time and again language originally designed to be consensually descriptive is taken hostage by vested interests. An example is the word migrant, which seems to have become shorthand for economic migrant, a person who does not enjoy the automatic right of asylum that a refugee does. Evidently this was why the news editor of Al Jazeera banned the word migrant from his channel altogether, ordering that the word refugee should be substituted in every case. This was an act of deliberate censorship, given that a fair proportion of those seeking to enter Europe in the vast flow of humans reaching its shores in 2015 were in fact economic migrants—or at any rate not refugees under the terms of the Geneva Convention. The news editor’s ukase was an especially elegant example of virtue signalling, given that Al Jazeera is based in Doha in the Gulf state of Qatar, which does not take any refugees at all.[3]

Analogous examples of word manipulation may be found of course outside the realm of politics, for example in academe, where tendentious political correctness has taken hold; in economics, where it has become polluted by financial interests; in journalism and in social life generally, where the turf wars over identity and victimhood are fought. For those of us the Germans describe as Normalverbraucher (“average consumer”, a phrase on which Langenscheidt’s dictionary hangs the cautionary tag of “humor.”), unravelling what lies behind the use of a particular word in a particular context has become quite a time-consuming task. What is needed is a lexicon for contrarians aimed at those who have decided to resist being cudgelled by words used as weapons.


Perpetrators and victims in the war of words 

A useful task for such a lexicon would be to explore the ways in which an increasingly totalitarian bureaucracy uses a type of language that is authoritarian, yet pretends to be consumer- or citizen-oriented. It will soon become apparent to those who study them that mission statements and other communications from business to consumers are often a cover for the opposite of their proclaimed intentions. Customer service or care turns out to be customer manipulation, usually in the interests of marketing (data-mining), but possibly on behalf of an inquisitive state or political interest. Any questioning of questionable behaviour by companies is met with bland rebuttals full of assertions about things the firm “takes very seriously” and is “working hard”, probably with “stakeholders”, to improve or remedy. Such blandness falls like a continuous warm piss on the citizen, the consumer and the voter, its progenitors being concerned with creating a general impression of benevolence and integrity which seldom accords with reality.

The exploitation of customers by social media has already given rise to a new and sinister term to describe how a potentially liberating force can be turned into its opposite, namely surveillance capitalism. Nothing is actually free in this world, nor probably in the next, so it is not surprising that users of such media have unwittingly been giving their private data for commercial exploitation (and free of charge at that). The surveillance, however, goes much further than simple commercial free-riding, precisely as a consequence of legislators’ attempts to curb the abuses that have arisen out of mass connectivity, globalisation of finance and mass movement of people. All this legislative activity comes under the heading of regulation, ever more of it as it transpires that for every increase in freedom there is a corresponding increase in the abuse of it.

Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the business and financial sectors, which have spawned their own disingenuous vocabulary to euphemise often doubtful practices: dark pools, front-running, securitisation, added value, sweating or stripping assets, shrinkflation, demutualisation, credit default swaps, arbitrage—the list would fill a small dictionary in itself. This is before you even begin on the terms that describe outright illegality—Ponzi schemes, insider trading, money laundering, fraudits and so forth. After light touch regulation (a euphemism that explains itself) had failed to get to grips with the financial sector’s methods of siphoning money out of the productive sector, rules and regulations multiplied. The inevitable result was that ordinary, honest citizens were faced with a bewildering thicket of them (in the UK, even buying a house is regarded as potential money laundering), while big firms armed themselves with ever-burgeoning, form-filling “compliance” departments. This of course had the advantage for the large and powerful concerns that it helped to keep out the competition from smaller ones that could scarcely afford to deal with the bureaucratic avalanche.

Notwithstanding that avalanche it might well be asked how, long after the crash of 2008, when individuals were being asked at every turn to prove who they were, or explain where they had got some money, or for what purpose they were sending it elsewhere, it was still possible for Wells Fargo in the United States to open a million and a half new accounts in the names of customers without consulting them. These customers only realised what was happening when they saw they were being charged fees on accounts or services they knew nothing about, or even found that debts for unpaid banking fees were being referred to debt collectors. Then again, long after the crash which they appeared to survive intact, Australian banks were still charging fees to the deceased, or extracting money for services not provided, or cross-selling worthless financial products to vulnerable people (in one case a man with Down syndrome was bullied into a deal, the whole sales pitch being captured on a tape later played in court). It surely demonstrates remarkable chutzpah to appoint the banks, the country’s most blatant financial swindlers, as the policemen responsible for checking the probity of those they swindle,[4] but that in effect is what happened. 

Governments, however, continue to believe in the efficacy of complex rules which, no sooner promulgated, become the object of minute analysis by lawyers, accountants, consultants and so forth in order to find a way of evading them. On its website the UK’s Financial Services Authority (since replaced)[5] used to offer fourteen tailored handbooks stuffed with arcane language and twenty-one “Focus On” guides; or you could spend an enjoyable hour or two browsing the sixty-five chapters of the FSA Handbook. Clearly it was expected that this vast swamp of regulatory detail would be helpful to compliance professionals (the website encouraged them to sign up for regular exciting updates to the legislation). All this did not seem to impress the OECD, whose report in 2009 had highlighted how the revolving-door connections (what the French call pantoufler) between industry and politics had resulted in schizophrenia at the FSA, because the public interest was constantly conflated with the interests of the financial sector.[6]

It was Winston Churchill who remarked, “If you have ten thousand regulations you destroy all respect for the law.” What would he have made of the Dodd Frank Act, designed to curb banking behaviour after the crash of 2008, which has 848 pages and requires 400 pieces of detailed rule-making by regulatory bodies, perhaps 30,000 pages in all? (The Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 in the USA, which rather successfully protected Americans from predatory finance for more than sixty years, ran to just thirty-seven pages.)[7] Then again, as the historian John Julius Norwich once drily pointed out:

The Lord’s Prayer contains 69 words. The Ten Commandments contain 297 words. The American Declaration of Independence contains 310 words. The European Union Directive on the Exportation of Duck Eggs contains 28,911 words.[8]


The language of chicanery

Contemporary sources of power, whether political or capitalist, invent their own code designed to cosmetise the reality of their more or less unscrupulous machinations. While this may be particularly evident in the world of finance, even to the extent that debits are miraculously reinvented as credits,[9] misleading jargon has seeped into many other spheres as well. This is true not only of politics, as one might expect, but also of academe, journalism, and above all commerce. Insurance contracts, mobile phone tariffs, utility bills, investment or private pension prospectuses and much else need an extensive explanatory gloss (or a degree in mathematics) to master.

Branding is an especially blatant form of marketing disingenuousness, where the competition for customers has drained advertising material of even the pretence of veracity. In 2019 an edition of the consumer magazine Which? listed five “savings” accounts from the same bank (Halifax) which all paid precisely 0.1% interest. They were called 60 Day Gold, Bonus Gold, Extra Income Saver, Liquid Gold, and Saver Reward. Each one probably had different conditions attached in regard to withdrawals or amounts allowed to be “saved” (otherwise why have five accounts all giving an equally poor return?), but “next to nothing may as well be nothing”, as Which? mordantly observed. The fancy names are simply insults added to injury.[10] Far too many of the daily transactions of consumers, voters and taxpayers have similarly become a sanity-endangering struggle with patronising disingenuousness and cognitive dissonance. The small-print disclaimers, often full of impenetrable jargon, are now so lengthy and self-serving that few people can really find the time to work out their implications (which is of course the point).

The ambivalence between the “law” and the sophisticated circumvention of its spirit by those with deep pockets and cunning lawyers can only be entrenched when even billion-dollar fines levied on fraudulent banks and other big businesses are seldom if ever paid by the individual perpetrators. The fines could be regarded as a cost of doing business (in many cases even tax deductible!),[11] which is the way that bribery actually is treated in another context. “Cost” is an agreeably neutral concept unburdened with ethical implications. The most grotesque aspect of the US authorities’ agreed settlements with crooked institutions, often with a “no admission of liability” clause inserted,[12] is that the penalty or fine is ultimately passed to the shareholders, who have themselves been bilked by the same institution’s malpractice. Those shareholders will probably also be taxpayers who have already financed the wrongdoer’s bail-out, or who are compensating the state for the tax-deductible elements of fines, but whose own financial activities may be subjected to ever more burdensome monitoring and red tape.

Lenin is supposed to have said that “trust is good, control is better”, a view with political consequences that are all too well known; so it is ironic that malfunctioning capitalism (not to mention Islamic terrorism) are pushing democracies in the same direction. At a time when international corporations were dodging taxes, while Lloyd’s Bank was cheating the taxpayers who rescued it,[13] and powerful individuals or enterprises were buying their way out of guilty verdicts, an estimated 201 kinds of government inspector employing some 100,000 officials in the UK was busy monitoring the rest of us.[14]

There is in any case little incentive for the current elite in business and politics to observe the spirit of laws they find irksome, since many of them are well cushioned financially from the rigours of the market place whose ideology they uphold. This world has its own quasi-magical and bland vocabulary of financial packages, stock options, incentives and so forth, which is alien to the other 99 per cent of the population. “Incentive” in particular is a remarkable piece of linguistic alchemy, since it has two meanings which are mutually incompatible: we are told that executives need vast pay packets to incentivise them, but on the other hand wages must be restrained as otherwise a firm’s ability to compete in the market place would be compromised. “When you think about it,” observes Ha-Joon Chang, echoing the maverick economist John Kenneth Galbraith, “this [is] a curious logic—why do we need to make the rich richer to make them work harder but make the poor poorer for the same purpose?”[15]


The rhetoric of double standards 

But why pick on CEOs when the mismatch between rewards and performance is as bad, sometimes worse, elsewhere? A mendacious, PR-led celebrity culture supplies its own vocabulary of mindless euphoria and pecuniary opportunism. Think of the dreary, narcissistic or drug-fuelled “celebrities” who people the pages of the yellow press and are keen to advertise the charitable work they squeeze in between partying and shopping; or the rock star exhorting our rulers to dish out more of our taxpayers’ money to his various causes while keeping his own money in an offshore tax haven; or the right-wing philosopher who accepts a substantial bung from the tobacco companies for writing ostensibly objective articles in defence of smoking; or the left-wing comedian who satirises tax dodgers while employing accountants to devise tax avoidance schemes of fiendish complexity for himself; or the hideously self-absorbed refugee from a royal marriage who tries to sell access to her ex-husband; or of the princess who touts herself as a royal historian, partly by copying chunks out of the works of real historians without acknowledgment. For all these a suitable language of euphemism and disingenuousness is required, image management that transforms self-indulgence into “creativity” and refurbishes the predictable unpleasantness of eventual exposure as personal “tragedy”.

The narcissism and double standards of celebrities are perhaps no more than a show for the groundlings. More worrying is the way public life has created its own script of gilt-edged double standards. Think of the Managing Director of the IMF lambasting the struggling Greeks for not paying their taxes when she herself is not required to pay tax on her salary of $467,940 (plus an “allowance” of $83,760).[16] Think of the red top newspaper editor who publishes faked pictures of British troops supposedly torturing suspects, then skips on to further high-profile jobs in the media with no questions asked; or of the CEO of Barclays Bank who patronisingly announces that “the time for remorse is over”, just before yet another tsunami of fraud committed by the bank under his leadership engulfs him and his colleagues; or of the MPs who were content to pass onerous tax laws or increasingly officious legislation, but helped themselves to a lavish smorgasbord of more or less fraudulent expenses; or of the London School of Economics, once a bastion of the sanctimonious Left,[17] which took some £300,000 of “funding” from a “charity” run by the son of the homicidal Colonel Gaddafi, money in all probability stolen or extorted from the Libyan people. Think of Britain’s ineffably self-satisfied civil servants who allegedly still believe they are the Rolls-Royces of the world’s bureaucracies, despite the fact that every year large swathes of their administration turn out not to be “fit for purpose”: as Gordon Gekko memorably said in the film Wall Street: “If these guys were running funeral parlours, people would stop dying.”

All the above talk a language designed to circumvent admission of guilt or acceptance of personal responsibility. Executives “step down” (which gives the impression of self-sacrifice) and negotiate huge leaving packages, when often they should have been fired without recompense or even fined.[18] Organisations issue statements saying that “lessons have been learned”—but why do you need to learn a lesson (that fraud is wrong, for example) that you already know?

The very job descriptions posted in advertisements for public-sector workers reek of factitious dynamism and impressive-sounding but ill-defined activity. Customarily such adverts are packed with managerial buzzwords like transformation—a favourite with New Labour—stakeholders, catalyst, excellence, partners, sustainable, best practice, diversity and so forth. “You’ll develop innovative, sustainable policies and programmes for consultation and engagement and provide expert advice to managers, councillors and partners in this specialised area,” runs a not untypical advertisement in the Guardian for a “Consultation and Community Engagement Officer”, whatever that might be. “High on your list of priorities will be ensuring we meet the requirements of the Duty to Involve and capitalising on the opportunities presented by new neighbourhood governance arrangements.”[19] The absence of concrete information one can glean from such a job definition is revealing—does it actually involve anything other than box-ticking?

All in all the sanctimonious jargon of management consultancy that has infected both business and government seems to be addressed to a class of insiders who are adept at working the system and making the right noises, but whose actual activities are hard to pin down. Such people are the modern equivalent of what Sir Thomas Elyot, in the Latin-English Dictionary he compiled in 1538, magnificently labelled as logodaedalus: “he that speaketh craftily to deceiue; or in eloquente words induceth sentences vayne, or of lyttel purpose”.

The public is uneasily aware that such everyday ventriloquism constitutes the tip of an iceberg, produced by pantomime villains in the globalised, postmodern—and probably soon post-democratic—world we are invited (or rather obliged) to embrace. Since a vast swathe of more or less parasitical quangocrats, consultants, middlemen, spin doctors and the like are so magnificently remunerated compared to people at the blunt end doing difficult jobs in even more difficult circumstances, it is no wonder that a smog of public disillusion has enveloped both the body politic and big business. The most rent-seeking elements of society seem to be feeding off consumers, depositors, shareholders and taxpayers, all talking a self-justifying game that underpins a culture of entitlement. It is no accident that the very word bonus has been drained by the bankers of any implication of a special payment based on exceptional merit, becoming instead the expected embellishment of an already excessive remuneration. What once was recognition of performance beyond the call of duty by the modestly paid is now simply a status symbol of the super-rich.


“When words lose their meaning, men lose their freedom”

It may be true that if you pay peanuts you get monkeys, but neo-liberalism has demonstrated that you can pay megabucks and still get monkeys, just greedier ones. On the other hand, so lowly is the work of Britain’s elected chief executive valued that even the clerk of the House of Commons gets paid considerably more than the Prime Minister[20] (not to mention a swathe of managers in the bureaucracy-laden BBC, some 236 Eurocrats at the European Commission, fifty-nine at the European Parliament and forty-three at the European Council).[21]

The feeling that words (and particularly job or institutional titles) have come adrift from underlying reality is reinforced when one contemplates some influential bodies. When George Orwell observed that “when words lose their meaning, men lose their freedom”, the European Court of Human Rights had not been invented. So what would he have thought about its inclusion of a judge on its presiding panels who hails from such an inspiring role-model for the rule of law and human rights as Russia?[22] Admittedly that is no more grotesque than the (now renamed and—not much—reformed) United Nations Committee on Human Rights that not so long ago was chaired by Libya and Zimbabwe.

Or perhaps you are interested in American democracy, where many local elections and sometimes national ones are almost entirely decided by campaign donors from big business, who naturally expect a return on their investment? Where, also, “Obamacare”, a project designed to protect 45 million Americans hitherto without access to proper healthcare, was denounced with evangelical hypocrisy by the health insurance and pharmaceutical industry (every Congressman and every Senator has up to three health industry or big pharma lobbyists trying to bribe or bully him).[23] And where the adjudicator in the aftermath of BP’s Macondo oil spill disaster has had the courts uphold his view that anyone who bothered to lodge a claim against the company was entitled to a pay-out even if they had suffered no harm at all. As the judges of the appeal courts serenely explained it, the compensation agreement that BP had signed did not expressly exclude payments to people not affected.[24] No wonder a Republican Congressman had to be hastily threatened into an apology when he incautiously described the agreement forced on BP as a 20-billion-dollar shakedown.[25]

Such lop-sided democracy and curious legal behaviour are usually explained as part and parcel of American exceptionalism, so perhaps we should not be surprised that in 2000 and 2016 the presidential candidate who got fewer votes nationwide was the winner. A dead man was actually elected to the Senate for Missouri in 2000, following a well-funded campaign (although some pettifogging jurists objected to his election on the grounds that he no longer “lived” in the state, as the Constitution required).[26] Yet America is bursting with rhetoric about democracy and constitutionalism. It regards its democratic governance as an important potential export, boasting, as cynics have pointed out, “the best democracy that money can buy”.


A lexicon for the victims

To understand, if not resist, the above phenomena, we need a dictionary which takes account of the fact that so many words, phrases and grandiose titles purporting to reflect reality are in fact a reflection of its opposite. There was such a contrarian dictionary compiled in the late nineteenth century by the marvellous American writer Ambrose Bierce. It arose out of his newspaper column and was originally called The Cynic’s Wordbook (1906). The American reading public being somewhat po-faced and prim, there were apparently objections made to a title that seemed to undermine the religiously based all-American ideals of progress, uplift and optimism. So Bierce changed the title of its second, enlarged edition to The Devil’s Dictionary (1911), thus deliberately causing even more offence.[27] But the Devil has the best tunes, as everyone admits, and his Dictionary established itself as a valuable guide to the prevailing hypocrisies of his day. Bierce said it was aimed at “enlightened souls who prefer dry wines to sweet, sense to sentiment, wit to humour and clean English to slang”. Of course it needed continuous updating and despite his poor reputation, the Devil, being unencumbered with the cant of the zeitgeist, often had useful things to say.

Bierce’s idea was not entirely original. One of the amusing conceits underlying Daniel Defoe’s satire The Political History of the Devil (1726) is that the Devil is shocked by the deplorable behaviour of mankind and indignant at getting the blame for it. The idea is an inversion of the situation in Dostoevsky’s great parable of The Grand Inquisitor,[28] in which Christ returns to earth and is haughtily put in his place by the Inquisitor for being far too radical—or rather, far too Christian. Mutatis mutandis, many of us may be inclined to feel sympathy for the Devil when we consider the extent to which his agenda has nowadays been hijacked by many of the most celebrated and highest-paid members of society, although he would surely regard contemporary levels of would-be demonic handiwork as cheap and tasteless. As the introduction to the Nonesuch reprint (2007) of the Political History puts it:

The prescience of [Defoe’s] text is astonishing, and today, as we grow ever more conscious of our powerlessness over megalomania, and as mass media puts names and faces to the perpetrators of evil and injustice on earth, there are many who, like Defoe, have never felt more sympathy for the Devil.[29]

Although “Lucifer”, one of the Devil’s many names, actually means “bringer of light”, many refuse to see him as anything other than the “Prince of Darkness”. As one might expect, the Devil takes a particular and regrettable interest in saints, both official ones like the levitating St Joseph of Cupertino and unofficial ones like Bono—not to mention moralising self-publicists like the German writer Günter Grass who made a fortune out of German war guilt, but for sixty years forgot to mention that he had been drafted into the SS at the end of the war.[30] The Devil’s perception of such people enjoying antinomian privilege is, of course, liable to give offence in certain quarters; and further offence may be caused by his mischievous claim that many people probably agree with him, but would never say so, not at least in public. What is the use of hypocrisy if it cannot protect your career, enhance your status, and keep up the flow of awards, appointments and honours?    

The key to avoiding unwelcome exposure is to master the appropriate language, which is likewise our key to understanding what is going on. In Orwell’s Nin teen Eighty-Four we learn that “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought”. Every day supplies compelling evidence of this, as soon as you turn on the news. Many of the words that come spilling out are politically loaded: moderate is used to denote someone whose views you are to regard as responsible; progressive is applied to persons or views whose altruism we are expected to accept without too much inspection of credentials; extremism is applied to a huge range of views ranging from those of a fanatical jihadist to those of someone who thinks the Brexit referendum result should be honoured.

Other phrases that are inherently tendentious have crept into the mainstream, for example cultural appropriation, of which people have even been accused for wearing sombreros to advertise a Mexican restaurant in the UK; cisgenderism and the whole lexicon of words associated with the politics of victimhood and identity; denier (with a deliberate echo of those who deny the Holocaust) used to discredit people who have reservations about any aspect of climate change science or the policies it engenders; and Islamophobia. This last, modelled on xenophobia, is used to marginalise not only a vaguely defined hate speech against Muslims and Islam, but also to embargo critiques of Islam as a religion that presume to question any shibboleths that Islamists claim are inviolable. If Voltaire were alive today, he would certainly be brought before the courts to answer for his views on Islam. Significantly, since the demise of blasphemy laws, anything at all can be said of Christianity and there is no corresponding taboo of “Christianophobia”. “We feel free,” writes the Croatian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, “because we lack the very language to articulate unfreedom”;[31] but clearly we do not lack the language that can be used to interfere with the freedom of speech of others.

It was again George Orwell who said that “The greatest enemy of clear language is insincerity.” This is a straightforward diagnosis of our language ills, but there is a deeper, more complex diagnosis that Orwell could not foresee, writing before computers had taken over so much of our formerly written communications. Computer literacy has bred a form of illiteracy and materialistic utilitarianism has edged out nuance, complexity and elegance. It was a sign of the times when the only remembered act of an insignificant Labour Foreign Secretary was to abolish the lengthy and considered end-of-term briefings that were formerly written for the Foreign Office when ambassadors retired from a post.[32] Today’s dull politicians have no use for a cultivated essay that requires time and concentration to read when they can look up all they are ever likely to learn about a country on Wikipedia. Still, at least Wikipedia strives to give you the facts, which fake news (or accusations that real news is fake news) does not. The impoverishment of communication that engulfs us on Facebook and Twitter seems to herald a deeper cultural decline. Gore Vidal put it this way: “As societies grow decadent, the language grows decadent, too. Words are used to disguise, not to illuminate, action: you liberate a city by destroying it.”

This article is an edited version of the introduction to A New Devil’s Dictionary: Lexicon for Contrarians by Nicholas T. Parsons, which was published in 2016 by CreateSpace.


[1] The term “proletarian” first appears in The German Ideology (1845) by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

[2] Thorstein Veblen: The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899)

[3] They do, however, help to finance refugee camps in the region, from which most of the inhabitants are desperate to escape for a better life in Europe.

[4] The Guardian, despite being served with gagging writs, was able to reveal in 2009 how Barclays’ “structured capital markets” arm was used for “tax avoidance on an industrial scale,” as ex-Chancellor Nigel Lawson put it. Later it was reprimanded by HMRC for two tax schemes described as “highly abusive” and designed to save nearly £500 million. On July 21, 2012 an article in The Observer by Ed Vulliamy described the interrogation of HSBC before a Senate Committee regarding its dealings with a casa de cambio in Mexico operated on behalf of the Sinaloa drug-trafficking cartel. Vulliamy points out that no bankers were sent to gaol in this and similar cases, and the fines are petty cash to the errant banks. Indeed they might simply be regarded as business costs.

[5] The satirical magazine Private Eye, with an impressive record in uncovering financial scandals, habitually referred to it as “the Financially Supine Authority.” This body was replaced with two regulators by Chancellor George Osborne in 2013, the Financial Conduct Authority and the Prudential Regulation Authority. The former was to deal with financial institutions and the latter was to protect consumers and investors. This seemed to split regulation into that dealing with perpetrators and that dealing with their victims. Nathan Willmott, a partner at Berwin Leighton Paisner, told the Financial Times: “Dealing with separate supervisory teams at the PRA and FCA, with their differing objectives and approaches, will undoubtedly add to the already massive regulatory burden.”

[6] D.Miller and W.Dinan: Revolving Doors, Accountability and Transparency: Emerging Regulatory Concerns and Policy Solutions in the Financial Crisis, OECD, Paris, 2009.

[7] See: Martin Wolf: The Shifts and the Shocks: What We’ve Learned – and Have Still to Learn – from the Financial Crisis (London/N.Y., Allen Lane and Penguin, 2014).

[8] This comparative statistic was a contribution sent to Lord Norwich by an EU official and reprinted in his 2012 Christmas Cracker, an annual collection of anecdote and oddity that he has been publishing for many years.

[9] John Lanchester in his book How To Speak Money (Faber, London, 2014) calls this verbal sleight of hand “reversification,” a somewhat Orwellian euphemism for deliberate mendacity. Before the crash of 2007-8, financial journalists wrote enthusiastically of banks “expanding their loan books” as if this was a sign of progress and profit, whereas it simply meant they were increasing their liabilities.

[10] Which? April 2019: “Old Dog, New Savings Tricks.”

[11] The USA moved to close this loophole in 2015 once an outraged public had become aware of it, but it is notable that journalists had previously hardly been zealous in highlighting such egregious behaviour.

[12] For example, in 2003 Merrill Lynch paid an $80 million penalty to the US authorities, but without any admission of liability, having already paid $100 million penalty in 2002, and there were to be further such payments in 2005 and 2008. Still, that is a drop in the ocean. In 2014 Gillian Tett of the Financial Times estimated that penalties paid out by the banks since 2009 amounted to $200 billion and rising.

[13] It was reported in August 2014 that the bank’s manipulation of interest rates (for which it was fined £218 million) involved the rate that set the fee Lloyds was paying to the Bank of England for cheaper funding during the financial crisis. The Governor of the Bank of England described its behaviour as “clearly unlawful” and “highly reprehensible.” Michael Skapinker wrote in the Financial Times that “diddling the authorities” who were “both helping and regulating” you was “staggering. You read about people who commit burglary when they are on probation, but they usually have the sense not to burgle the house of the chief probation officer.” See: Michael Skapinker: “Business has lost its place in the community,” Financial Times, August 14th, 2014.

[14] An index of government inspectors and their sweeping powers was produced in four editions between 1979 and 1981 by the Federation of Small Businesses with the Adam Smith Institute. Margaret Thatcher’s government tried to tackle the problem, but (as with QUANGOS and consultancies ) only cosmetic changes ended up being made. See: An Inspector at the Door by John Blundell for the FSB and ASI, 1979-81.

[15] To be fair, Chang sets this in the context of the neo-liberal “trickle down theory,” whereby it is assumed that allowing the rich to keep more of their cash through tax cuts would mean they would spend more (presumably on luxury goods), thus creating jobs and incomes for others. On the other hand, the cuts in benefits and frozen minimum wage were designed to make it more worthwhile for people to work, even at low wages, rather than sit around watching daytime television. Everyone except neo-liberals can see that this is a self-serving argument, although it is also true that paying benefits higher than what the market pays for lowly jobs and immediately taxing people who start earning at a low level obviously does mean that most people will make the rational choice to stay on benefits. See Ha-Joon Chang: Economics: The User’s Guide (Pelican, London, 2014), P. 91.

[16] Vicky Price: Greekonomics: The Euro crisis and why politicians don’t get it (London, Biteback Publishing, 2013), P.14. The figure is for 2012 and will have been increased since then.

[17] The LSE’s governing council included Shami Chakrabati, a noisy human rights campaigner and Director of Liberty, now influential in the Labour Party; it does not appear that she protested.

[18] Sometimes they just “step back,” may be calculating that the furore will die down after a while and they can then step forward again….

[19] Quoted in David Craig and Matthew Elliott: Fleeced: How we’ve been betrayed by the politicians, bureaucrats and bankers and how much they’ve cost us (Constable, London, 2009) P.160.

[20] Nearly £60,000 more than David Cameron earned as Prime Minister in 2010, plus a massive pension pot worth £2.5 million – equivalent to up to £135,000 a year. See “The Commons ‘men in tights’ paid more than MPs they serve,” by Brendan Carlin for The Mail on Sunday, 1 August, 2010.

[21] Figures from 2012, as quoted in David Charter: Au Revoir, Europe: What if Britain left the EU (London, Biteback Publishing, 2012) P.93.

[22] Pernickety people may also have doubts about the benefits to the court of having judges from Azerbaijan, Albania, Moldova and so forth, and the relevance of the experience of those from Andorra and San Marino…

[23] These are, of course, only three out of the estimated 100 plus lobbyists assigned to each senior US representative.

[24] By September 2014, BP had paid out $43bn in penalties and clean-up costs. Contrast BPs Macondo accident (111 deaths) with the Bhopal disaster in 1984 when the American firm Union Carbide was responsible for 2,000 deaths. After five years legal dispute it agreed to pay out an insulting $500 million in compensation.

[25] Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas). Admittedly Barton had received $1.5 million from oil industry since 1999, which was enough to discredit him. Nevertheless the treatment of BP by the courts looked a lot like a “shakedown.”

[26] There was a repeat of this situation in 2012 when Mario Gallegos was elected Texas State Senator a few weeks after dying. Of course in some cases a dead Senator might actually be an advantage…

[27] In his preface to the 1911 edition of The Devil’s Dictionary Bierce actually says that the “more reverent title” of “The Cynic’s Word Book” “had previously been forced upon him by the religious scruples of the last newspaper in which a part of the work had appeared.” The volume provoked a deluge of feeble copycat publications featuring “cynic” in their titles, with the result that the word was brought so deeply into disfavour “that any book bearing it was discredited in advance of publication.”

[28] The encounter features in a chapter in The Brothers Karamazov where Christ is imagined as returning to Seville when the Inquisition is in full swing and the Grand Inquisitor explains to him that he must be sent to the stake because he is interfering with the church’s mission on earth.

[29] Daniel Defoe: The Political History of the Devil (1726, reprinted 2007 by Nonesuch Publishing, Dublin). Introduction P.9.

[30] Many youths were drafted, of course, who were not necessarily convinced Nazis. What outraged Grass’s critics was that he had suppressed this hardly irrelevant detail of his life through a long career of preaching to his compatriots about moral responsibility. He finally revealed it on publication of a memoir, well timed therefore to create a scandal generating huge publicity – and of course huge sales. In addition, Günther’s remark that the reunification of Germany could be likened to the Nazi Anschlusss with Austria in 1938 was not exactly received with enthusiasm….

[31] Slavoj Žižek: Welcome to the Desert of the Real: Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates.

[32] A stimulating collection of these is available in Parting Shots: Undiplomatic Diplomats – the ambassadors’ letters you were never meant to see Matthew Parris, Andrew Bryson (Penguin Books Ltd, 2010).

  • ianl

    A well-written essay, addressing the point with some grace and precision, although without suggestion on how to redress the trend described. This lack of practical solution is not unusual, of course. Unhappily, an essay such as this is the non-left equivalent of “taking action” – impotent.

    But: >”… at least Wikipedia strives to give you the facts”. That entirely depends on which topic one is using Wiki for. Mostly, the birth and death dates of various kings, or the varying geographical boundaries of Genghis Khan’s empire over his time – these data are available without much distortion.

    Wiki is corruptible on topics of conflict though, such as AGW. Various sub-editors take it upon themselves to censor information that seems not to support favoured narrative. One author of such a report watched in disconcerted amazement as his own Wiki comments on his own published paper were deleted as he watched his screen. Not just once either – a dozen sequential times.

    This deliberate distortion occurs visually as well. The malicious replacement of the term carbon dioxide (an invisible gas) with carbon (a black solid) is also seen in the photo-shopped pictures of steam from cooling towers rendered as black smoke – to evoke dread.

  • ianl

    Satire is also a weapon of words. Fortunately, those of the left side of the road are incapable of using it, leaving it free for us.

  • Ian MacDougall

    As quoted by Nicholas T. Parsons:
    “The Lord’s Prayer contains 69 words. The Ten Commandments contain 297 words. The American Declaration of Independence contains 310 words. The European Union Directive on the Exportation of Duck Eggs contains 28,911 words. “

    Very droll. Except that Our Lord and Saviour Yeshua bar Joseph said simply: “Thy will be done,” leaving open the question as to what God the Father’s will actually was.
    If He had been more specific and detailed, the Christian West might have avoided much if not all of the subsequent wars, pogroms, civil strife, revolutions, abuse of power, outright tyranny, murder, slander, iconoclasm etc, etc that has plagued it ever since, since the perpetrators of most if not all of it have claimed some sort of divine sanction operating in their own favour if not Christ’s very own sanction (vide the Crusades).
    Of course, that necessary detail would have rendered the Prayer into a document requiring more papyrus than available in all of Egypt, needing a train of camels to haul it around, and a legion of town criers or whatever they were called in the contemporary Holy Land to proclaim it.

  • johanna

    Excellent essay.

    What riles me is the ‘lessons will be learned’ and ‘procediures have been reviewed’ bullshit.

    In practice, nobody is responsible for anything. That is, nobody is held to be responsible. In the end, they blame it on lack of resources.

    In a business, there are decision makers who are responsible. The public sector is positively allergic to that concept.

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