Tuesday, 5 August 2008


'Unspeak' is a label coined by Steven Poole to describe loaded words which are often used euphemistically in neutral senses. It's also the title of Poole's book on the same topic.

'Surgical strike', for example, is used in war reporting to describe a military attack in which only the specific target is destroyed, with no damage to civilians or surrounding infrastructure. 'Surgical' suggests a fine degree of precision, just as a medical surgeon performs delicate surgical procedures. Furthermore, during medical surgery the patient is anaesthetised, thus 'surgical strike' implies painlessness. Finally, military action is linguistically equated with the removal of disease, thus giving it positive associations. By describing military operations as 'surgical strikes', politicians are therefore communicating a subtle ideological message, which is unthinkingly repeated by journalists who adopt the same terminology in their war reporting.

Poole shows how so much political and military discourse utilises metaphors which have been chosen by spin doctors for their ideological implications, and, more worryingly, how these terms have pervasively entered conventional public discourse. Kenneth Burke describes this process, when our selection of terminology limits our perceptions, as 'terministic screening', and Quentin Skinner refers to 'evaluative-descriptive terms', words which are employed objectively despite their subjective origins.

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