Friday, March 08, 2013

A matter of style

Journalists at The Economist have recently been issued with our new Style Book. It comprises 184 pages of rules, orders, guidelines, suggestions, warnings and worldly wisdom. I've been dipping into it every day and I was particularly struck by this passage describing the history of military euphemisms and how they have been introduced to neuter social outrage.


"Worse can be expected when politicians try to justify a war. “They make a wilderness and call it peace,” wrote Tacitus nearly 2,000 years ago, quoting Calgalus, a British chief whose people had been beaten up by the Romans. Orwell was equally acute in pointing out 60 years ago how terms like transfer of population and rectification of frontiers put names on things without evoking mental pictures of them. Friendly fire, body count, prisoner abuse, smart bombs, surgical strike, collateral damage have been coined more recently with the same ends in mind. Thus in Britain the War Office and the secretary of state for war became the Ministry of Defence and the defence minister. In due course nuclear weapons became nuclear deterrents – unless they were held by bad people. The Reagan administration spoke of its airborne invasion of Grenada in 1983 as a vertical insertion. The butchers of the Balkans produced ethnic cleansing, and the jihadists of al-Qaeda have offered sacred explosions in place of Islamically incorrect suicide bombs. The Bush administration, with its all-justifying war on terror (prosecuted with the help of the Patriot Act), provided more than its fair share of bland misnomers. Its practice of enhanced interrogation was torture, just as its practice of rendition was kidnapping, extraordinary rendition was probably torture contracted out to foreigners and its self-injurious behaviour incidents at Guantánamo Bay were attempted suicides. Some of those who now advocate a military attack on Iran refer to it as the kinetic option."